Watching the Blue Bulls make such a fist of their effort to pull off one of the biggest upsets in modern provincial rugby it was impossible to escape a recurring thought – how is it that some people can’t see that John Mitchell has left the Bulls in better shape than when he arrived?
Of course Mitchell is no longer there. He is in London helping prepare England for a clash with South Africa, the country he has resided in for the past eight years. But it does take a while for a team to drift away from the template introduced by the previous coach, particularly if that coach is followed by one who worked with him.
Pote Human knows the Mitchell systems, and if the Bulls want to retain some of the Mitchell influence, then Human should be retained too. I am not saying as head coach, but as an important figure somewhere in the Bulls system.
The carry-over from Mitchell was clear for all to see at Newlands. First there was the advancing defensive system that hassled Western Province into error, and which helped the Bulls prevent WP from scoring more than two tries. And that was over 100 minutes. Given how easily the Cape side have kept the tries coming this season, that was some achievement.
But that stinginess wasn’t achieved only by the defence system itself. Allied to that was a Bulls commitment to keep the ball, thus denying WP the counter-attacking or attacking opportunities that would have made them a threat. There was tactical astuteness from the Bulls, but also ball-retention skills.
One of the big advances made by the Bulls from the time they were coached by Mitchell’s predecessor was an increase in the tempo with which the team played the game, as well as a seismic improvement when it came to attacking shape. Again, it was in evidence at Newlands, and the build-up to the try they dotted down to level the scores at the end of regular time was sublime.
So, if I give Mitchell credit for one good performance, why didn’t I also see him as culpable for the disastrous performance against WP at Newlands the week before. Good question, but an easy one to answer – that wet-weather game was a freaky experience for the players, and the one thing that the current Bulls team don’t have lots of is experience.
Inexperience is a bedfellow of inconsistency, and it also explains why, after making a great start to the Super Rugby season by beating the Hurricanes, the Bulls eventually fell away to end no better placed on the log than they were the year before.
The Bulls don’t have the depth they used to. Loftus has been like an airport departure lounge over the past five or six seasons, with far more players heading for the exit than have come in through the arrivals shoots. Or let me rephrase that – when it comes to experienced players and star performers, the outbound turnstiles have been more busy.
The Bulls do bring in plenty of young talent, but the extent to which they invest in a large body of age-group players, many of whom don’t even get to play for the age-group representative teams let alone advance to senior provincial level, is understood to have been one of the bones of contention that led Mitchell to opt against signing a contract extension. That and the uncertainty that came with a change to the administration that had bought into his vision.
The Bulls were good when their top players were available. Mitchell always said the Bulls would be a work in process and given where he started out, he was the one local coach in Super Rugby who could be justified in talking of long-term plans. In addition to upskilling the players already on the Bulls’ books, he also knew he needed to build a squad by procuring talent and experience from outside. Remember, he inherited the squad.
That he succeeded in upskilling the players is beyond any contention. If Lood de Jager, RG Snyman, Jesse Kriel and Handre Pollard play a leading role in beating England at Twickenham in less than two weeks from now, the England defence coach should feel a bit culpable. Not because of any potential leaks in his defence system, but because of what he has done for those players since moving to Pretoria last year.
It’s just a pity that he is coaching against them and not involved in their continued growth as players, something that could have been ensured by recruiting Mitchell into the Bok coaching system.
Former Lions coach Johan Ackermann had it right when he spoke to the media after helping Mitchell with his English visa application. “I think he is going to add a lot to England because he is a technical, world-class coach,” said Ackermann, who served as Mitchell’s assistant at the Lions.
There are a lot of different opinions on Mitchell, but most of them come from a position of ignorance. In Ackermann’s case, you can take it from someone who knows.