On first appearances, Vodacom Bulls coach John Mitchell is one of those people who don’t naturally lend themselves to being liked.
He may not take kindly to the description, but thanks to the cauliflower ears, the closely shaved bald pate and an intensity not too dissimilar to that of a rattle snake, “Mitch” reminds one of the guy whose job it is to enforce the “no touching” rule at a strip joint.
It also does little for his popularity that the former All Blacks, Western Force and Lions coach comes across as not having an empathetic bone in his body, a trait shown by how gung-ho he is to make the hard calls.
Lest we forget (and frankly some of us haven’t) Mitchell is the guy who controversially ended the international career of everybody’s favourite fullback of all time, Christian Cullen, by dropping him from the All Blacks in 2003.
But watching his Bulls – a side that finished a clueless 15th out of 18 teams in last year’s Super Rugby season – outmuscle, outplay and outlast the Hurricanes, the 2016 champions, in their opening game of this season suggests there’s a lot to learn from the reputedly irascible Mitchell’s methods.
From the moment he set foot at Loftus Versfeld, the New Zealander has been brutally honest about the union’s problems.
Said honesty has been followed by ruthless decision-making, like the demotion of last season’s Super Rugby head coach Nollis Marais to coaching age group rugby. South Africa is a country obsessed with saving face, and most people would have been content with fiddling while Loftus burned as Marais supposedly gained the requisite experience.
Players have also been chewed and spat out, as Rudy Paige will attest after having an announcement made of his being dropped from the extended squad for not being part of the coach’s plans while injured.
Under different leadership, Paige would have expected his status as a Springbok and his injury to buy him some protection and time respectively, but Mitchell clearly has no time for reputations.
Fellow Bok Trevor Nyakane is another who has learnt that lesson the hard way, having been dropped from the playing 23 because his fitness, something which has been a problem for a while, wasn’t up to scratch.
“The guys realise that it comes down to what you do as opposed to what you have done in the past,” was Mitchell’s explanation.
While having the reasons for their axing made public no doubt will have been embarrassing for both players, the good thing is that rugby reasons were given for why two senior players – black ones at that – couldn’t hack it.
Normally our coaches fudge the subject and leave it to innuendo in the media.
If Nyakane’s dropping was a sign that meeting team standards was a minimum requirement, the inclusion of unheralded players like Divan Rossouw, Thembelani Bholi and Johnny Kotze in Saturday’s starting line-up speaks volumes about the rewards of doing so.
Many would have noticed that the Bulls’ 23 that beat the Canes only had five black players in it, as opposed to what seems the seven-player average in other Super Rugby franchises. While it may seem like Mitch’s revolution won’t take transformation into account, another way of looking at it is that – with rugby as the only currency – the players who should play, will play.
Mitchell gave us Elton Jantjies as Lions coach in 2010, when most of his contemporaries would either not have taken a chance on a 19-year-old black flyhalf or played him out of position.
As momentous as it was, the win against the Canes means little as the Bulls – who played with incredible tempo, sought to keep the ball alive at that murderous pace and left nothing in the tank defensively – will make mistakes and lose games they shouldn’t while they look to perfect their new philosophy.
But the basic tenets of what they do – searing honesty, ruthless decision-making and a relentless pursuit of excellence – is something everybody in SA rugby should be striving for.