England defence coach John Mitchell sees no benefit in spying
Former All Blacks boss says game is too unstructured to benefit from surveillance
England defence coach John Mitchell Mitchell was briefly Ireland’s forwards coach in 1997. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Such is the crossover in coaches among what remains a relatively small rugby world at the elite level, it is not unusual for some of them to come up against their native countries. This is especially true for the All Blacks given how Kiwi coaches travel the globe.
So it was that they encountered Joe Schmidt and Greg Feek last week, and next up in Saturday’s semi-final among those trying to plot the holders’ downfall will be the former All Blacks head coach John Mitchell, England’s defence coach since September last year.
Mitchell was briefly Ireland’s forwards coach in 1997 before taking up the same role with England for three years. Have badge, will travel. Mitchell coached the All Blacks from 2001 to 2003, starting with a 40-29 comeback win over Ireland at Lansdowne Road which effectively sealed the fate of his former Waikato teammate Warren Gatland as Irish head coach.
Mitchell guided them to 22 wins, a draw and just four defeats, which included running up 50 points in wins away to South Africa and Australia in romping to the Tri-Nations series. But after their 22-10 World Cup semi-final loss to the Wallabies in Sydney’s Telstra Dome – made famous by the George Gregan taunt at his counterpart Byron Kelleher of “four more years” – he had a particularly uncomfortable grilling from some of the New Zealand media, with whom he had been consistently curt. The NZRU then removed him from his position, citing his poor relationship with the media and sponsors more than results.
It seemed particularly ironic therefore that Eddie Jones described the New Zealand media as fans with keyboards, a suggestion to which Mitchell responded diplomatically: “He probably deserves an easy ride. He has been the most successful Test coach in the last two World Cups and is obviously under pressure to do a third one.”
Appeared to choke
That was not the first, or indeed last, time that the All Blacks appeared to choke in a World Cup knock-out game.
“I think they have matured totally since then, the whole organisation has matured,” said Mitchell. “Like any of these occasions, especially back then, it is actually about how you handle pressure and that will be no different this weekend.
“It will be a different kind of pressure. It will be different to 2015, it will be different to 2011, it is a different kind of pressure and it will be who handles the pressure. There is more pressure on them because they are expected to win.”
Mitchell would only be human if he was a little scarred by the experience, even now. After that 2003 World Cup, he coached his home province of Wakaito for two years, but he hasn’t worked in New Zealand since 2005, his career taking him to ensuing stints in England, South Africa, Australia and the USA.
But he knows that the All Blacks are routinely under pressure. It goes with the territory.
“I haven’t lived there for a long time but I can only go on family living back there and it is very much (a case of) New Zealanders expect the All Blacks to win. And it is usually a trauma if they don’t but it is also they have got their own legacy to uphold and sustain.
“They are a team of excellence and why they have been so successful, they have managed to increase that excellence and you just look at the way they have evolved since the last World Cup and the last year.
‘Can’t wait to rip in’
“In saying that, we are excited. We know our strengths and we will prepare and we are looking forward to it. It is contrasting in many ways because we believe in what we do and can’t wait to rip in.”
Jones’ other hand grenade on Tuesday was the claim that England’s training session was spied upon.
“We just happened to be training where there are apartments above our tiny two-metre wall, so I am not sure about what the use of the tarpaulins are,” said Mitchell. “The facilities have been excellent. But it is an area where people live and there is the odd red light around. There was one up in the corner the other night which was a bit suspicious.”
Asked if the English management sent up one of their security staff to investigate, Mitchell said: “When I took over the All Blacks in 2001 we had a manager who was highly military and he loved surveying the whole area. To me, you can get too involved in it and create an anxiety on your group.
“We have a really good environment and focus on our work at hand and want to enjoy it as well. We are definitely not a group who wants to increase the anxiety. There is enough pressure at this level let alone chasing around some blokes that might be in a building with a camera.”
As to the notion that this demonstrates the All Blacks might be a little rattled, Mitchell said: “The game is pretty small, you know all the coaches – I played with Ian Foster for 10 years. I used to coach Scott McCloud, so I know all these guys really well. If that is what they want to do and that is the way they want to prepare, good luck to them. The game is highly unstructured, so I don’t see any advantage in it.”