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The notorious record of John Mitchell's disruptive coaching career

By Ben Smith
John Mitchell's coaching path has left a trail of disenchantment.

The Bulls and head coach John Mitchell seem headed for an unceremonious and bitter divorce, with reports of a move to be England’s defence coach a ‘done deal’ despite Mitchell’s current contract running until the end of 2019.

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Mitchell has been upfront in the media about the Bulls resourcing issues, using public statements to push for a larger recruitment budget, which has reportedly caused unrest amongst the Board.

He has never been one to shy away from taking a hard-line stance, but his growing list of shortstop destinations raises questions about whether Mitchell does more harm than good for each organisation he joins.

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Former Lions player, Jonathan Mokuena, tweeted at the time that keeping Mitchell around “will be the biggest mistake in the history of South African rugby if you allow that demon back at the Lions” during the coach’s stand down in 2012 after being investigated following player complaints.

“We are humans, not animals. We are adults. You don’t curse and swear at adults who are married and already have children – that is not how you treat people,” he elaborated.

With England already under pressure to perform under Eddie Jones, could putting a divisive Mitchell into the mix be like adding kerosene on a fire?

His longest tenure as a head coach is the five years he spent at the newly formed Western Force from 2006-10. Unsurprisingly, midway through his stint in 2008 he was stood down as the club investigated his behaviour after complaints about the treatment of players and coaching staff.

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“I have always had an honest and open relationship with the players, and nothing will change,” he said in 2008 during the Force player revolt.

“Having said that, as a head coach you have always got to look to evolve, and I am always looking to evolve.

He retained his position following the investigation. Had he been forced to leave that would have been in line with the duration of Mitchell’s other coaching stints – 2 to 3 years at most. In 22 years of coaching, he has held appointments at 16 different teams across six countries, yet the results have been sub-par with the exception of his short stint at the helm of the All Blacks.

The NZRU’s decision to let Mitchell go after just two seasons in 2003 was motivated by his relationship with sponsors and media, which had deteriorated as the game was entering professionalism. He restricted access to his players and treated the media with disdain, causing conflict with the direction of the organisation.

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By all accounts, Mitchell is a deep thinker, with a ‘religious’ dedication to self-help philosophy, which is iterated by his ‘management speak’ and talks of ‘journeys’ for each team. Contrasting that is an ‘old school’ approach to rugby, with a preference for hierarchical standings within teams bound together by an alcohol-fuelled culture.

In his first coaching stint at Sale in the late 90’s, he details a ‘team-building’ exercise he enforced on his team in his book.

“I called the players in for what I called a recovery; in effect, a team-building exercise. I got the forwards and backs out on the field, placed cones to demarcate where they should run and sent them on their way,” wrote Mitchell.

“Afterwards, I called them back into the club, where I had a 55-litre keg of beer waiting for them. I told them that no one was leaving until we had finished the keg, and if anyone needed to go to the toilet, he would have to nail his pint first.”

His booze culture in the early 2000’s led to criticism from former All Blacks, especially from former captain Anton Oliver who claimed in his own book that Mitchell ‘allowed, encouraged and participated’ in a serious drinking culture that impeded the team from sticking to basic schedules – at times the team’s travel could be delayed so that the coaching staff could recover.

Mitchell later rubbished the claims as ‘garbage’ and explained ‘the problem was my more social approach was in conflict with the previous management’s culture’.

His Super Rugby coaching stints at the Force and Lions ended in controversy when players complained about his methods and how they were being treated. In 2015, the Stormers were reportedly close to signing Mitchell but backed out due to concerns raised from the senior players over his appointment.

Player embarrassment and humiliation seems to be a byproduct of his coaching that causes Mitchell’s issues with his teams. He was accused by his players at the Lions of ‘violating the dignity’ of a player by continuously berating him in front of teammates with obscene, abusive language.

“The nature of the (players’) complaints is so serious that we have suspended him (Mitchell), pending further investigation,” club president De Klerk said at the time in a public statement.

In his book he details a ‘shaming’ exercise he used at Chiefs trainings in 2001 to highlight poor performers.

“Whoever missed the most tackles in a game was given a pair of white gloves to wear during training. These were known as the ‘Fijian policemen’, and Roger [Randle] was the first to receive them.”

The problem with Mitchell seems to be the relationship side of coaching, where there is a consistent track record of player conflict and building resentment that ultimately derails the relationship. It’s not just at one stop either, with players across multiple countries and cultures having problems with him.

With such a detailed rap sheet, it’s stunning that there seems to be more suitors looking to line up his services. There isn’t a more disruptive coach in the game that has had as many fallings out with their employer than Mitchell has.

The Bulls look to be the latest to join that list, with England’s RFU short odds to be the next.

Eddie Jones is a polarising figure in his own right, and pairing him with John Mitchell looks like a sure way to create more problems. Mitchell has not held an assistant role since 2000 when he held positions with Wasps and England. A power struggle is bound to unfold with this England team as two egos try to lead this team.

With Mitchell’s history of dividing locker rooms and putting players offside, this is a disaster waiting to happen.

In other news:

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William 5 hours ago
All Blacks vs England takeaways: Richie Who? Time for Cortez

Correct analysis of Perofeta’s bungling of the try opportunity Ben. Never ‘fixed’ Steward as he came across in defence and passed too early. Steward didn’t have to break his stride and simply moved on to pressure Telea. Never scanned the easier option of passing to the two supporting players on the inside. Beauden Barrett showed how it is done when he put Telea in for his try. Another point from the game is that the rush defence is hard to maintain as the number of phases increases. From scrums the defensive line only contains backs who all have roughly the same pace. Once forwards are involved, the defence has players with variable speeds often leading to a jagged line. It also tends to lose pace overall giving the attack more time and space. Beauden Barrett’s break to set up Telea’s try came because Baxter went in to tackle McKenzie and Steward went out to cover Telea. Barrett has a massive hole to run through, then commits Steward by passing as late as possible and Telea scores untouched. Another comment I would make is that Ben Earl is a good player and generally an excellent defender but he made three significant misses in the series, two of which led to All Black tries. Got stepped by Perofeta in Dunedin for Savea’s try, missed McKenzie in Auckland leading to what should have been a certain try being set up by Perofeta and was one of the tacklers who couldn’t stop Savea in the leadup to Telea’s first try. Perhaps he should contact Owen Farrell to pick up a few tips from ‘tackle school’.

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