Cape Town - If there were bookmakers taking money on John Mitchell’s chances of becoming the new DHL Stormers coach to succeed Eddie Jones the odds would have improved considerably as Western Province director of rugby Gert Smal discussed his union’s way forward at a press conference on Friday.
Although Smal says that the departing Eddie Jones, who has taken up an offer from the Rugby Football Union to become the England coach after just 14 days at Newlands, has done enough groundwork for the Stormers to get on with their pre-season training without much disruption, he wants a new head coach in position as soon as possible.
And when Smal read out the minimum requirements for the position, he effectively ruled several of the other candidates out of the equation. Not only is Smal’s preference for a coach with an overseas background, he also wants that coach to boast extensive Super Rugby coaching experience and to have coached at international level. In other words, he wants a marquee coach like Jones.
“I am very much in favour of having a coach from overseas come in as when we appointed Eddie that was one of the big factors – we wanted a coach who would stimulate the environment by bringing new and different ideas, which is what I experienced when I worked at Ireland as an assistant coach,” said Smal.
“We would prefer an overseas coach for those reasons. The minimum requirements for the job would be that he has to have coached at Super Rugby level for seven seasons and also have coached at international level. We also want someone who has experience of coaching the style of rugby we envisage playing and which Eddie was working on introducing.”
All of those requirements rule out all but a few candidates, with the fact that Mitchell, who has coached the All Blacks, was the assistant coach for a time under Clive Woodward at England, and coached the Chiefs for a few seasons in Super Rugby, Western Force for five and the Lions for two, putting him at the top of the queue.
In addition to that, there is the other requirement that Smal mentioned, which is that the new coach must understand the South African rugby culture and systems. Mitchell, after coaching the Lions, living in Durban for five years and working as a commentator in the country, fits that bill more than any other overseas coach.
The requirements appear to rule out the other candidates mentioned on other local media platforms, such as Brendan Venter and former Bok coach Peter de Villiers. So even though Smal says there has been considerable interest expressed in the position from prospective coaches, everything does appear to point towards Mitchell.
One of the obstacles in the WP path when it comes to appointing a new coach though maybe the perception put out by what union president Thelo Wakefield and Smal both referred to as false reporting.
“I have seen the figure of R15-million mentioned as the amount the RFU paid out to us in return for us releasing Eddie to them, but the figure is not anything like that,” said Wakefield.
“It is a confidential agreement that was reached between the two parties, but I can tell you that it is nothing like that figure that was reported in some newspapers yesterday.”
Smal also tried to pour water on the rumours that Jones was on a R5-million a season deal with the Stormers.
“I don’t know where that came from and it is disturbing that people just seem to snatch these figures out of the air. It is irresponsible as it creates certain expectations.”
Of course the Stormers still need to make an offer that is attractive to Mitchell. Last time he, in his words, didn’t have his head turned by the money offered to him, and the biggest stumbling block was the two season deal he was offered. He wanted a four year contract. Jones effectively was employed for four years, as he signed on for a three season plus the option of one more deal.
In the meantime the Stormers will be working under Smal preparing for the new Super Rugby season, with Robbie Fleck being asked to play a more important role in the past by taking charge of training sessions.
“Fleckie is now the most experienced Super Rugby coach in South Africa and he has benefitted a lot from my decision to let him coach the WP under-21 side this year. He was a big success in that role and is now ready to take on more responsibility, which he does as we have made him the coaching co-ordinator at the union,” said Smal.
Jones will be returning to Cape Town at the start of December to help the Stormers with their planning for the final build-up phase to the 2016 Super Rugby season.
“Eddie is not getting paid for it. I think he is just doing it because he feels bad about leaving us,” said Smal.
The WP director said that although there had been plenty of speculation about England’s interest in Jones after the World Cup, Jones’ departure had taken him by surprise.
“It was an offer he couldn’t refuse, and as someone who has coached myself I understand how something like this works. Eddie is 56 now, which means he will be 60 at the next World Cup. He has never won a World Cup as a head coach and he wants to do it. This could be his last chance, and obviously he wouldn’t have a chance of doing that if he was coaching the Stormers.
“But it did take me by surprise as when I first heard the rumours I met with Eddie and he told me he hadn’t been approached. I think once it happened it happened very quickly. I have nothing against Eddie. He is a really top rugby guy. I think England are going to be a real powerhouse under his coaching in 2019.”
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