Cape Town - With Eddie Jones now in London and poised within the next 24 hours to be announced as the new England coach, the DHL Stormers director of rugby Gert Smal needs to do what he failed to do earlier in the year by making John Mitchell a serious offer.
The former All Black coach was targeted by the Stormers earlier in the year, and the approach to him preceded that made to former Sharks coach and fellow Kiwi John Plumtree. However, Mitchell was only offered a two year deal and Mitchell said at the time that the figures didn’t turn his head either.
Mitchell, who has become a successful chief executive in the business world over the past two years, said he would have needed a longer contract, more like four years, in order to be interested. The negotiations broke down after he communicated that view to Smal.
Jones though was offered a three year contract with the option of a year extension, which effectively meant four years, so it is difficult to see any reason now why Smal can’t do the same for Mitchell, particularly as the pay-out from the RFU to Western Province should be a substantial one.
It is understood that Jones flew to London on Wednesday night, and sent a message to the Stormers management before his departure apologising for the fact that he was leaving them before his job had really begun. It has been learned that the RFU are planning to make an announcement before the weekend.
With Jones out of the picture, Mitchell says he would definitely be interested in working as Stormers head coach under Smal were the union to make him a realistic offer.
“I would happily work in Cape Town as I believe in the talent there is available and coming through the ranks down there,” said Mitchell.
“The Stormers as a franchise has a lot going for it, and there is plenty of potential. However, I’d need to have my head turned by any offer that was made. That didn’t happen last time.”
Mitchell has a couple of other rugby organisations that are interested in his availability, and it is understood that the United States, where there is the potential for considerable growth before the next Rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019, is among the suitors who have come knocking on his door.
But Durban has been Mitchell’s home for the last six years, he is a married to a South African, and South Africa is where he sees his long-term future, so it would make sense for local rugby to make use of his vast strategical and tactical knowledge and experience.
While there will be some who’d argue against Mitchell’s credentials on the basis that he made acrimonious departures from his last two jobs, the Western Force in Australia and the Lions in South Africa, there were mitigating circumstances that forced the situations that led to his departure.
In Perth, the Western Force were without a chief executive, with Mitchell forced to double up into that role at a time when there was extra pressure created by the withdrawal of a major third party sponsor of a considerable proportion of the playing staff.
At the Lions, Mitchell was successful in taking them to the Currie Cup title for the first time in 12 years in 2011, but in 2012 he was in charge of a squad of players in Super Rugby that knew they weren’t going to be part of Super Rugby the following year due to the agreement that the Southern Kings would play in the competition in 2013.
Mitchell demands high performance so struggled with a squad that had gone into survival mode as every player focussed on negotiating their futures for the following year rather than on the team goals. He also had a weak administration above him, something that has been remedied since Rudolf Straeuli arrived to take over as Lions CEO.
One of the key factors that should militate against Mitchell falling victim to the same breakdowns that blighted him in his previous jobs is Smal’s presence as director of rugby. As he was going to do with Jones, the former Bok flank and assistant coach can buffer Mitchell from the politics and other administrative issues that make WP a tough place to work at.
Although Mitchell didn’t last longer than two and a half years as All Black coach in the early part of last decade, he was effectively axed for losing just one game - the 2003 World Cup semi-final against Australia. He ended up with a phenomenal 86% win record from his time at the All Blacks, and although he lost that key game in 2003, he ended with a 3-2 record in his personal duels with Jones, who coached the Wallabies, during that time.
That included him guiding the Kiwis to their first Bledisloe Cup success in six years in 2003 and two Tri-Nations titles, plus the freakish achievement of coaching the All Blacks to 50 point away wins over the Boks and Australia in successive weeks.
Mitchell changed the All Black attack system before the Tri-Nations where his team scored those big wins started, and regrets now that he didn’t delay the change until the start of the World Cup, which would have given Jones less time to prepare a foil for his new approach.
In a country where few coaches are versed in coaching effective attacking rugby or have experience of it, the numbers that stack up in favour of Mitchell in terms of win percentages and trophies won should outweigh the negative fall-out that followed his last two jobs when it comes to considering his potential to take the Stormers to where they wanted to go under Jones.
It is unlikely a South African coach would be able to do what Jones was preparing to do.
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