Many South African rugby fans would have considered last week’s Springbok defeat as the most depressing happening of the past few weeks but it doesn’t come close to the moment that it became apparent that John Mitchell would not be continuing his rugby directorship at the Bulls.
Mitchell, with his experience and technical and strategic abilities, will provide England coach Eddie Jones with far more than just a defence coach. He may well provide Jones with what Jones provided for Jake White when the Springboks won the World Cup in 2007. He’s been at the coal-face, he’s coached at a World Cup. England’s gain is South Africa’s loss at a time where this country is short of good, experienced coaches and also short of the different angle that is brought by a foreign eye.
The benefits that the northern hemisphere has derived from New Zealand coaching influence in particular has been well documented but it is nonetheless interesting to look at the list of coaches that will be taking charge of the English clubs as they head into another Premiership season.
Pat Lam, Todd Blackadder and Chris Boyd are all from New Zealand, and of course the best young coach to come out of South Africa in recent years, Johan Ackermann, is coaching Gloucester. That is by no means an inclusive list – there is foreign influence in the coaching personnel at almost all the competing clubs, and with the likes of Dave Rennie working at Glasgow Warriors, it is a similar story in PRO14.
This leads to the cross-pollination of ideas that Gert Smal recruited Jones to bring to Western Province in 2015. Jones stayed at WP for an even shorter period than Mitchell did at the Bulls and while it would be disingenuous to ignore the money he was offered by the RFU to cut his stay at the foot of “Table Top Mountain” to just a fleeting fortnight, it would also be wrong to pretend that there aren’t factors in the South African game that make it unattractive for good foreign coaches to work here.
We’re not just talking currency. Let’s use Joe Schmidt as an example of a foreigner who has achieved success that he’d be unlikely to replicate in South Africa. Under the Kiwi, Ireland have risen to become World Cup contenders because he was allowed to recruit top assistants and given license to introduce a quasi-Kiwi system that puts the Ireland team first.
Forget the politics, the chief challenge for a foreign coach who’d think about coaching in South Africa might be the contracting system that is in place at the top unions. The move by Bok coach Rassie Erasmus to drive a change to the system, with each union being limited to 45 professional players, is long overdue.
I can sense that many are asking why the fuss about Mitchell. Those would be people who look at only bald statistics and don’t pay much attention to context, changes to playing style and improvements to individual skills set and confidence. They would argue that Mitchell’s record in his first and now only Super Rugby season with the Bulls did not achieve superior results to his immediate predecessor.
The context of this season for the Bulls was that they were starting off a zero base, with Mitchell having to start from scratch in his attempt to marry an attacking template into the Bulls’ traditional playing style. His predecessors had spoken a good game. They didn’t have a clue how to implement it.
When it comes to attacking shape and ability to turn defence into attack, the Bulls made huge strides and if there was one local coach who could get away with talking about processes and not being results driven at this point, it was Mitchell.
He wasn’t helped by the injury list that mounted in a union that has focussed its recruitment on school leavers rather than on qualified Super Rugby ability and which pays the food bill for many players that will seldom, if ever, get to play for the Bulls.
That said, the season didn’t turn out that differently for Mitchell to what he was anticipating. He knew what he was working with. He also knew that the impact of the conditioning program that was necessary for the Bulls to adapt to a quicker paced game and sustain it over a whole Super Rugby season would take time to take effect. He had an incremental build in mind across many levels.
Why is Mitchell leaving? That will probably become clearer in time, sufficeth it so say here that this isn’t a repeat of the perceived Mitchell sequence of events that led to acrimonious departures from the Lions and the Western Force – the players thrived on him and the Bulls wanted him to stay.
They wouldn’t have offered him a contract extension otherwise. He’d also made his decision not to sign that extension, that would have committed him to the Bulls beyond 2019, and communicated it to them long before the England offer came along. His departure is a big loss to South African rugby.