When the Emirates Lions were rebuilding under John Mitchell, Johan Ackermann was the Kiwi’s assistant coach and together they laid down roots that have since made the Lions one of the top teams in Vodacom Super Rugby. Could history repeat itself at Springbok level with this pair?
At least one of these successful coaches will likely be promoted to the Boks in the near future, given that Rassie Erasmus is only going to be acting coach until the end of the 2019 Rugby World Cup and then revert to his actual position as SA Rugby’s Director of Rugby.
Will John Mitchell take over as head coach of the Boks? Quite possibly. He has made it no secret that he would like to coach South Africa one day, and as a former All Blacks coach that lost just one game — the 2003 World Cup semi-final against Australia — he is more than qualified.
What about Ackermann? After his tenure at Gloucester, where he has proved both popular and successful, the Bok job is the logical next step for Ackermann. He was a big fan-favourite in South Africa because of his humility, the loyalty he engenders from his players, and the positive, happy environment he created at the Lions.
Mitchell is one tough bloke. He has hit a few potholes during his coaching career but admits that he has learned a great deal from the confrontations with players at the Force and the Lions. And now look what he has achieved at the Vodacom Bulls in no time at all. The four tries scored by the Bulls against the Chiefs last week were sublime – attacking rugby at its best. Heck, the Bulls looked like a Kiwi team…
The Lions, of course, also play like a Kiwi team. The seeds of the attacking game were planted and germinated by Mitchell, and blossomed under Ackermann.
We need no reminding of how, through sheer weight of personality, Ackermann transformed the Lions from a bunch of nobodies axed from Super Rugby to finalists in that competition two years in a row. The Lions could well have vanished off the South African rugby landscape after being heartlessly cast adrift from top-flight rugby, but what Ackermann achieved was incredible, although the early foundations were laid by Mitchell, who coached the Lions to the Currie Cup title in 2011.
So who might it be? The meticulous planner and passionate Mitchell, or the “ysterman” that had his Lions players willing to run through brick walls for him?
During a two-season ambulance job with the Boks heading into the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Erasmus will have one eye on the progress that Mitchell makes with the Bulls, and the other on Ackermann at Gloucester.
The possibilities for the Boks in 2020 through to the World Cup in France in 2023 are hugely exciting. Having hit rock bottom in 2017, the Boks will have more direction and a workable game plan under Erasmus in 2018. They will have a clear plan on how to play, they will be astutely selected (confused selection was one of Allister’s biggest failings) and they will be brimming with intent after four years of chaos.
It’s unlikely, but not impossible, that Erasmus wins the World Cup next year but, either way, he will hand over the whistle in 2020 to whichever candidate had the highest mark on his scorecard over the previous two seasons.
Imagine what Mitchell or Ackers could do with the Springboks over the four years leading up to the 2023 World Cup in France, especially with Erasmus efficiently working behind the scenes in support?
And the dream result would be for Mitchell and Ackermann to renew their old partnership at the Boks.