Another top coach has been lost to South African rugby. This week John Mitchell – “Mitch” to friends and colleagues – has left his role as executive of rugby at the Bulls to take up the position of defensive coach in Eddie Jones’ England set-up. I’ve been following the goings-on at the Bulls with interest having been lucky enough to spend time with Mitch and his team, on two separate occasions, over the past year.
What has transpired at the Bulls over the last few months is nothing new to South African rugby. It’s been happening ever since we entered the world of professionalism. Too many of our administrators have been found wanting. And all too often they’ve been able to shift the blame to things like transformation – complex issues but easy targets.
I’ve seen this from the very moment we started Connect Sports Academy. So often we have been told we don’t belong because we don’t fit into the antiquated model of rugby they’re still trying to protect.
Our game is being ruined by unnecessary bureaucracy. By administrators who are holding on to their glory days. Days which have nothing to do with this modern, high performance era. By individuals who can’t see where the sport is going, let alone help open it up to all members of our society.
Mitch is a modern rugby professional. He is someone who will not compromise on the pillars of professionalism.
He’s always been supportive of the work we’re doing at Connect. When he first took over at the Bulls I asked if he was keen to do some coaching clinics with some of our young athletes. He said he was happy to do so when he was down in the Cape. But it became clear that we could learn so much more by visiting the franchise in Pretoria instead.
A quick look at the calendar and we were all set: “Great, see you at 7am on Monday at Loftus Versfeld.”
I had no idea what to expect. Arriving just before 07:00, I was led to the coach’s meeting room in the High Performance Centre. All the coaching staff were present and Mitch introduced me to his team.
It was incredible. Mitch gave me total access to the team environment for the entire training week. I sat in on coaching meetings, team meetings, training sessions, tactical and technical analytical sessions, strength and conditioning sessions and much more besides.
Mitch sat me down over breakfast to explain his newly implemented tactical “periodisation” and skill integration method.
Immediately apparent was that Mitch had a long-term plan for the Bulls. He wanted to build a legacy, or rather revive a once-proud legacy. Critically, he wanted to drag the union into the modern, professional era. He was frank about that, as well as about what he felt was necessary to get the Bulls playing a brand of winning rugby that would also put bums on seats.
He spoke at length about encouraging players to believe in themselves, to do away with the fear-based culture that had permeated the union, as well as South African rugby in general. He spoke openly about his passion for personal psychology and how it affects performance. He struck me as someone who had practised a lot of introspection in the build-up to the job.
This is directly at odds with the persona portrayed in the media following his difficult tenure at the Lions. In both stints with the Bulls, I saw no sign of the authoritarian figure that Mitch was supposed to be. I never heard him raise his voice. Not once. I heard from numerous personnel about how liberated they felt working in his environment. There was so much positivity in the organisation.
The Bulls had just narrowly lost to Western Province in the last minute of a Currie Cup match before my first visit. They had defended for numerous phases before giving away a penalty which Province converted. Feeling this was a teachable moment, Mitch gathered the team and showed them the footage of the final play, asking the players how they felt in that instant.
To them, initially anyway, they felt that they’d done well to defend for so long. But when they started to break it down they realised that their defence was too passive, scared of giving the penalty away that would mean defeat – which happened anyway.
Mitch took that moment and used it, saying: “I’m not going to be that coach that kaks on you for trying to win games. I need you guys to back yourselves, to back our systems.”
You could sense the buy-in from the players from then on, in the way they trained for the rest of the week. They’d probably prepared themselves for post-defeat recriminations. But there were none. They just had to be prepared to move forward fearlessly.
Visiting again in early 2018, the Bulls were preparing for their first game of the Super Rugby season, at home to the Hurricanes. This time all the Springbok internationals not involved in the Currie Cup were present and I was interested to see how this affected the team dynamic.
What I found was that, to me anyway, some seasoned Boks seemed to be in the shape of their lives. They seemed fit, happy and content. You could see they had bought into the Mitch approach. And on several occasions, I saw how Mitch empowered them as leaders and decision-makers.
At the end of our time together, Mitch checked the calendar and said: “We’re playing the Stormers in a couple of weeks at Newlands. Why don’t you bring some of your boys along to meet the team after the game?”
True to his word, we took 15 of our boys to the match before Mitch invited them into the changing rooms to meet him and his team. Our young athletes were blown away by the experience. Our kids come from the toughest parts of Cape Town: Khayelitsha, Bonteheuwel, Belhar. For them this was a massive moment, to meet role models in Travis Ismaiel and Lizo Gqoboka who have risen from the same environment.
A couple of months later and the John Mitchell era at the Bulls is over before it had chance to truly begin.
Mitch: from all of us at the Connect Sports Academy, we wish you well in your next endeavour and we’re sorry to see you go. DM