By Jeremy Guscott
When John Mitchell joined Clive Woodward’s England set-up in 1997, it was so strange to hear a Kiwi voice in one of our England training sessions. It was new to me and a lot of others at that time, whereas today the players are used to hearing accents from all over the world.
But after that initial adjustment, I found John to be a great addition to the coaching line-up and he improved our rucking ability no end. The impact he had on the forwards was huge. It gave the pack another side to their traditional arm-wrestling style, where a static maul would churn into a rolling maul and eventually, hopefully a driving one.
He got on very well with the players and you could have good conversations with him over a few drinks. I found him interesting and challenging as a coach, which is what you need. High quality players like to be challenged – they don’t like being told what to do. Good coaches will challenge good players, whereas poor players need to be told what to do.
He embedded himself very well and having been forwards coach previously for Ireland and Sale, he came to the England role with a background in the Northern Hemisphere game. But there was a feeling he had ambition to be head coach in the near future and from England he left to take charge at the newly former Waikato Chiefs franchise before taking the All Blacks role a year later.
He coached New Zealand in their semi-final defeat to Eddie Jones’ Wallabies at the 2003 World Cup and since then has coached all over the world – Australia, South Africa, America – before getting the call from Eddie to be defence coach in place of Paul Gustard.
His appointment is a little bit left field given that there are out-and-out defensive coaches out there and he doesn’t have a reputation as a defence coach. But nothing should surprise us in the game of rugby these days, on or off the field with players and coaches. If he is going to be the defence coach, having been a head coach at a number of places, there’s no reason he cannot fulfill that remit.
He will know attack and defence inside out – all good head coaches do – and I don’t doubt his ability to coach defence at all. He is more than capable of getting messages across and becoming welcomed by the squad.
His appointment is through to the World Cup so it’s only short term, and his next move will be determined by how successful the team are – and it could be longer term if England do well. I’ve never been a backer of succession plans; if your team have been unsuccsful all the main coaches are tarred by the same brush as they are part of the reason you’ve failed. There is a big step up from being a defence or attack coach to being a head coach and some specialists would be awful in charge. The way some of the best players would be awful captains.
Mitchell has been a head coach with success with some roles and not others – like Eddie Jones – and I’d imagine he would be interested in taking over from Jones. If England are successful Eddie will stay and I’d find it very surprising if he left mid-World Cup cycle if his side were No.1 in the world. If he were to go, Mitchell has that experience and I’m sure he’d apply. But flop in Japan and I can’t see any of this coaching team being England head honcho any time soon.
There might be questions over why Mitchell has been in other jobs for only short tenures and from the outside it begs the question, why? But I’m sure Eddie and the RFU would have done their due diligence and Eddie is the type of guy who could well go on his gut if he feels a new voice can fit in and add value.
Eddie in under more scrutiny and pressure than ever before in his England role – he’s been there before because he’s lost jobs before – but as he’s said since South Africa, he knows what’s coming and you hope he has learned from those situations.
Mitchell will be more direct than what the playeres are used to – Kiwis tend not to flower stuff. The game is very simple to them and having a Kiwi coach will certainly up the skill levels of the players. I remember him going through drills of rucking, body positions, technique – he was very up on that and wanted the players to be the best so it was drill after drill after drill.
It was physical and intense but he made sure it wasn’t boring and I certainly learnt a lot under his coaching.
This England side lacks intensity. It’s the nature of the beast with a nine or 10 month season here in all weathers. In the early and late parts when the grounds are hard there is more intensity but outside of that there generally isn’t – unless you watch Saracens at their very best.
Mitchell will hopefully bring that missing intensity because he won’t allow standards to drop. It will be as intense, if not moreso, in training as in a game. That is a Kiwi trait that he can bring to this side so the players will think the game won’t be as tough as training.
When you get technique right – and you are doing rugby technique not judo technique – there is less risk of injury which should please the chairman and owners of the clubs.
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