Mitchell happy to sing off the Eddie Jones hymn sheet
‘Bore the s*** out of us’ barb aimed at Ireland not unusual from the well-travelled Kiwi coach
John Mitchell talks to the England players during a training session last year. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Bravo John Mitchell. Barely a nanosecond in the job and Irish rugby is, in a few choice sound bites, one of the “best teams in the world” and will “bore the s*** out of us.” But let’s be clear, Mitchell has never bored the s*** out of anybody. He has, though, annoyed the s*** out of many.
The England defence coach was Eddie Jones’ second pick after approaching Andy Farrell, who declined to come back into a system that had cast him adrift after the 2015 World Cup.
In that choreography Jones has highly leveraged the England team with two divisive characters, himself and Mitchell. Time will tell how the sparky duo go down in the stockbroker hinterlands of Bagshot and Chalfont St Giles.
Mitchell has always been a coach with more of a past than a future. At the last count England was the 17th team he has been involved with.
In his last separation from the Bulls into the bosom of Jones, he added another lesion to a pockmarked body of work, the Pretoria franchise unhappy with Mitchell and the manner in which England approached him.
It was probably his stint with the Western Force in Australia between 2006-10 where he earned his stripes as a coach who rarely failed to have his say. Hitting a speed bump midway through, he was stood down by the club after players complained about the way he treated them.
“I have always had an honest and open relationship with the players, and nothing will change,” said the straight talker.
A few years later in 2012, Groundhog Day. Same coach, same issues, different country when former Sevens Springbok Jonathan Mokuena spoke out against the suspended Lions coach.
While there were calls for Mitchell’s reinstatement, Mokuena’s volcanic response was that it would be the “biggest mistake” in the history of South African rugby, complaining Mitchell was disrespectful to players and treated them badly.
“We are humans, not animals,” said Mokuena. “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.”
Mitchell began his coaching career in Ireland and was drawn into Murray Kidd’s Irish set up in January 1996, having played with Garryowen. His agreement with the IRFU ran to the end of March of that year and in addition to his responsibilities as coach and technical adviser to the Irish forwards, he worked in the Limerick area as an IRFU games development officer.
He was a strong player and had captained the All Blacks three times during their tour of England and Scotland in 1993.
“A different training ethic to us at the time,” remembers Garryowen’s Paul Hogan. “He was living in the gym. The Irish player was just getting into that mindset but he was way ahead of us. He was extremely tough.
“I think the first match he played for Garryowen was Manley from Australia. They had flanker Willie Ofahenguae. The players would have known each other from Australia and New Zealand. I remember them tearing into each other in a way we wouldn’t have been used to.
“He wouldn’t have been a lot bigger than us but his training ethic and mindset would have been stronger than us. A different attitude. You’d finish a game back then and you’d go out and drink a few beers. He was always at the forefront of that.”
After Ireland Mitchell left for Sale Sharks and in 1997 was targeted by England head coach, Clive Woodward, to be the new forwards coach. That lasted three years and he left the national set-up in 2000 for Wasps, returning to New Zealand to coach The Chiefs before blazing a trail through a chain of positions for the following 16 years.
In some ways his storm damaged journey has come the full circle. Just a month after becoming New Zealand coach in 2001, his first match in charge was against Ireland in Dublin, the All Blacks doing what they had always done 40-29.
He went on to lead them to a third-place finish at the 2003 Rugby World Cup. Not bad. But as ever there was grit in the ointment. Mitchell was it and departed, the NZRU citing his difficult relationships with media and sponsors as the main reason.
Back to his old provocative ways, the 54-year-old landed heavily in this week’s BBC interview. Certainly calculated, “bore the s*** out of us” and the damning faint praise of being “one of the best teams in the world” is taken from the Jones play book.
“Tough f***er,” is how Hogan also praised his old teammate. On Saturday expect the England defence to arrive in the image of their maker, having a pop, proudly disruptive.