Sunday 16 December 2018

Kiwi John Mitchell backs Schmidt for World Cup success

Former All Blacks coach - and Garryowen man - urges Ireland boss 'not to be 'too disciplinarian'

John Mitchell rates Joe Scmidt highly. Photo credit: Ross Setford/Getty Images
John Mitchell rates Joe Scmidt highly. Photo credit: Ross Setford/Getty Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

BEFORE John Mitchell became a coach of coaches, there was John Mitchell the players' coach; probably not boasting the most successful coaching CV in the world but arguably the most varied.

The 50-year-old Kiwi coached at the highest level in five different countries, assisted England under Clive Woodward, led the All Blacks to trophy success and found glory with clubs in England, New Zealand and South Africa.

He is remembered at home for not winning the World Cup and dropping Christian Cullen.

In South Africa, he suffered a near fatal stabbing frenzy when his home was burgled four years ago; all this and much, much more is detailed in a wonderfully entertaining account of his life, 'Mitch: the Real Story'.

Tell him there is precious little reference to Ireland in the index and he laughs down the phone from his current home in Pietermaritzburg, a city in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal; the place where he met and married current wife Julie.

"The publishers primarily wanted a book about my coaching life," he chuckles, adding "which was colourful enough. If they wanted playing details, we'd have to go another 700 pages."

His coaching life merits the book in itself; so too the deviations into his own upbringing - a tough life in boarding school, the separation of his parents despite a strict Catholic upbringing, the sudden death of two close childhood friends.

In 1991, a phone call from Murray Kidd somehow resulted in Mitchell pitching up at a training session Dooradoyle on a wet Tuesday October evening.

"I never realised the passion that would be there and how much it meant to the community," he recalls. "I had a memory of Munster beating the All Blacks but I didn't realise that Limerick people were the most passionate rugby people in the world.


"Garryowen set their standards really high and I was challenged there, in the community and on the pitch. They're bloody tough."

His memories transform from a trickle into a flood.

"Competing with Paul Hogan and Willie Sexton. Strange trips to Ballymena. Stranger trips home. Beating Cork Con. Beating Manly and Willie burying me in the ground.

"Phil Danaher! The warm-ups! Stand up! Sit down! A scrummaging session down at the Cookies; Fitzgerald and Clohessy pushing my head down my arse."

He dimly recalls getting sharing a Young Munster bus to a Five Nations game in Wales while the AIL's finest consumed Harp by the litre.

Kidd would then ask him to assist with the Ireland forwards during the Australian's short-lived sojourn as national coach in the dimly lit early days of professionalism.

They won just one game and the campaign was infamous for Peter Clohessy's stamp on Olivier Roumat in Paris; "Claw said 'nobody told me there'd be 17 f***ing cameras there!"

In general, Ireland wasn't ready for the professional game.

"It was too emotional. And emotion was often Ireland's killer. They weren't able to remain calm in situations that required you to be clear in the head," Mitchell recalls. "But they learned to master their execution more as the years passed. Emotion is still needed but only when required and in a calculated way."

Joe Schmidt completes the circle, 20 years on; Mitchell lauds his fellow Kiwi's potential to bring Ireland to a last four at the World Cup for a first time ever. "Without a doubt."

But he posits two warnings.

"He needs to be careful he doesn't calibrate too much towards being a disciplinarian. He needs to remain a mentor.

"If his methods and measurements become too onerous, that's when the thinking and the openness to perform for him, and his methods and structures may become questionable.


"Also, Ireland always need another Brian O'Driscoll. It's a very small rugby playing nations and they're needs to be one or two players who are truly world-class. Somebody else has to come along in whatever position, make their own iconic brand and be a player people fear."

Mitchell will merely observe from afar; he has different priorities now. The book closed a chapter on his life.

"The aim wasn't to get back at anyone but sometimes conflict is about purely perception," he says.

After another controversial exit from the Lions Super Rugby side, professionalism may be behind him. And Ireland too.

"Never say never. I love seeing the Cambridge Blue jumper and the star, it always brings back memories. The game is very much part of me and always will be."

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