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USA Rugby announced the hiring of embattled coach John Mitchell Monday, tabbing him to lead the Eagles through the 2019 World Cup. To those ignorant of Mitchell’s past outside of what USA Rugby’s press releases herald, the hiring was a homerun.
The former All Black captain coached New Zealand to the Rugby World Cup semifinal in 2003 and finished his time as All Blacks coach with a winning percentage over 80. He coached under Sir Clive Woodward in the lead-up to England’s World Cup title, and he led the Sale Sharks and three Super Rugby franchises. By all standards, Mitchell’s resume is more impressive than any of his predecessors at USA Rugby.
However, those more plugged into the goings on of world rugby may be wary. Mitchell has earned a polarizing reputation. His stays with the Western Force and Lions both ended in controversy, with outside arbiters having to settle disputes between himself and his charges, and plenty of former players and managers have publicly criticized Mitchell’s ways.
Mitchell’s first head coaching job was with Sale in the late ‘90s, the early years of rugby’s professionalization, as a player/coach. It was there the foundation was laid for two common criticisms he’d endure throughout his coaching career – that he promoted a booze culture and that he was too hard on his players.
“I called the players in for what I called a recovery; in effect, a team-building exercise. I got the forwards and backs out on the field, placed cones to demarcate where they should run and sent them on their way,” wrote Mitchell in his book.
“Afterwards, I called them back into the club, where I had a 55-litre keg of beer waiting for them. I told them that no one was leaving until we had finished the keg, and if anyone needed to go to the toilet, he would have to nail his pint first.”
He eventually ran into problems at Sale and was bought out in 1999. He believed the root of the unrest was his desire to drop a player, Steve Diamond, who was favored by the club’s administration.
“There came a time, though, when I knew [Diamond] could not be in the squad that I was building for the future,” wrote Mitchell. “That unsettled him because his rugby profile helped his business networking. Suddenly, there were allegations that my training regime was too tough, and it certainly wasn’t to be the last time I was to hear that accusation.”
After his time with Sale, Mitchell assisted with the London Wasps under then-director of rugby, and current USA Rugby CEO, Nigel Melville. While with Sale and the Wasps, Mitchell assisted Woodward’s England team. In 2000 he felt like he might be getting dropped and made plans to return to his native New Zealand. England eventually offered him a long-term contract, but Mitchell went ahead and moved his wife and kids closer to family.
In New Zealand he caught on with Waikato’s NPC (now ITM Cup) team in his home province. He coached just a season for the representative side before moving onto the region’s Super Rugby franchise, the Chiefs, and eventually the All Blacks. In his book he shares a noteworthy anecdote from his first couple of years in New Zealand.
“I really appreciated how Roger Randle grew as a player, but I think he was secretly thrilled when I moved on to coach the All Blacks, because of a disciplinary measure I had introduced at the Chiefs,” wrote Mitchell. “Whoever missed the most tackles in a game was given a pair of white gloves to wear during training. These were known as the ‘Fijian policemen’, and Roger was the first to receive them.”
In 2001, just two years ahead of a World Cup, Mitchell succeeded Wayne Smith as the head coach of the All Blacks. He made waves by bucking the previous manager-coach hierarchy and dropping senior players with no communication. After the 2003 World Cup, in which his All Blacks finished third having been bounced by Eddie Jones’ Australia, Mitchell suffered a fate similar to Tolkin.
Before Mitchell’s plane had even touched back down in New Zealand after his team’s exit from the tournament, it was announced Mitchell would be made to re-apply for his job if he were to keep it. He tried, sinking a significant amount of his own money into his application process, but ultimately, the New Zealand Rugby Union opted to go with Graham Henry, who would lead the All Blacks to the 2011 World Cup title.
Left in his wake in New Zealand were some loud critics. Anton Oliver, a former All Black captain who was dropped unceremoniously by Mitchell when he first took the reins, wrote negatively in his own book about the role of alcohol in Mitchell’s team. So did fellow All Black Christian Cullen in his book.
“That was garbage. The problem was that my more social approach was in conflict with the previous management’s culture,” wrote Mitchell in his book, referring to Cullen’s claim that he promoted a booze culture.
With the All Blacks he began breathalyzing players in the mornings, and players had to be under the drunk-driving limit.
“We introduced the breathalyser test because the players’ recovery is very important in professional sport. You can’t just get carried away celebrating after a game anymore. It was our way of keeping a register, privately, within the group. Obviously, there were times when certain people got close to that margin, including me, and when that happened we dealt with it, albeit in a fun and educational way to raise the culprit’s self-awareness.”
Mitchell’s next major postings were with the Super Rugby expansion Western Force in Australia and the Lions in South Africa. Both ended contentiously with player revolts. In Australia, he yelled at players during a halftime speech and stormed out of the locker room. They reportedly locked the door behind him. It all bubbled to the point of Mitchell being investigated and suspended.
The investigation didn’t lead to Mitchell’s ouster, and he remained with the Force until securing a job in South Africa. He started with the Golden Lions, a provincial team based in Johannesburg, and coached them and Super Rugby’s Lions, both of which were operated by the Golden Lions Rugby Union. He won a Currie Cup title with the Lions in 2011, but things again turned sour between him and his players, and he was again suspended and investigated.
He shares an interesting anecdote in his book from the time period when the troubles simmered with the Lions.
“The backs concocted a plan to knock out the tight forwards with sleeping pills in their beer. But J.C. van Rensburg is a very clever guy and he knew something was up, particularly after Pat Cilliers had dropped off to sleep while he was sitting there. J.C. held his nerve as he watched the guys go down in a pile, wondering if he was next,” wrote Mitchell.
“It was probably not the right thing to do, but on tour you do need to have some fun, too. I was actually in on the plan, though I didn’t know who had orchestrated it. I was supposed to spike someone’s drink, but I couldn’t because there was something wrong with my target’s beer and he replaced it.”
Not long after that incident, the tension came to a head. Mitchell tried to address some of the issues directly with his players.
“After I met with the player group, I asked them, now that the problems had been identified, could we move on and try rectifying them. Cobus Grobbelaar looked me in the eye. ‘No,’ he said. ‘You have to go!’”
Another Lion and former South Africa 7s captain, Jonathan Mokuena, tweeted during the dispute that keeping Mitchell in charge, “will be the biggest mistake in the history of SA rugby if you allow that demon back into the Lions.”
He also told reporters, “We are humans, not animals. 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 outlined the 28 charges brought against him by his players that led to the suspension. One of them described him as using, “foul and abusive language, and swore at James Kaman in front of other players on various occasions, and violated his dignity when you continuously told him that he was ‘s---’, called him a ‘p----’, accused him of being soft and that he needed to ‘harden the f--- up’. After the game against the Crusaders, you defamed him by telling him in front of his fellow players that he was a ‘f----n’ idiot’ and ‘f----n’ stupid’”.
Mitchell said the plea used in his defense for this particular charge was, “Profanities are used generally and this is an accepted practice. No discomfort was expressed with the words [Mitchell] used. The type of discussion is not denied. It was necessary to have this type of discussion given the circumstances. No discomfort or grievance was raised at the time. [Mitchell] cannot recall exactly which words were used after the delay, but some of the words like ‘pussy’ are not words he uses and are therefore denied.”
Eventually, the hearing regarding the allegations didn’t result in Mitchell’s firing. But the team environment had become untenable, and a buyout was negotiated.
“The bottom line is that after having left the All Blacks, I got into bed with two organizations that weren’t at the top of their game,” Mitchell wrote in his book. “I was able to take them to a certain point, but the overall structure and the politics of those organizations wouldn’t allow any further progress or any kind of sustainable success.”
During his time coaching the All Blacks, Mitchell’s main adversary was Eddie Jones, who coached Australia from 2001-2005. Mitchell mentioned Jones, who led Japan to the biggest upset in test history over South Africa in the World Cup a few months back, often in his book. Jones left Japan after the RWC, and he was set to take over the Stormers in South Africa, but England came calling.
Mitchell was reportedly in line to fill Jones’ void with the Stormers, but supposedly player unrest got in the way. Then he was hired by USA Rugby, despite indications in his book, published in 2014, that his next job would be with a team more prepared to win immediately.
“I would love to coach international rugby again, but I won’t choose to coach Tonga or another minor rugby nation. I turned down an offer from Scotland in 2013. It would have required a long-term plan, it was a big project and I didn’t want to go down that road again. When I left the All Blacks, I should have waited at that point for a big job, something at a proper high-performance organization, instead of going straight to Western Force…
“After 20 years of coaching, I no longer have the motivation to coach a side that is coming from a weak starting point, which is what I have done for long periods of my career. I am reluctant to work for voted-in administrators who do not have a high-performance mentality, and who have a narrow focus and lack of unity pressure. In many of these toxic rugby environments, people and processes do not meet the plan, and outcomes happen by accident. Eventually, poor outcome becomes inevitable, as success is not sustainable.
“My preference would be to work for a businessman, board and/or franchise owner who can buy the players what they want, and pay whatever he thinks they are worth. I am not prepared to lower my standards again.”
Some of the negative traits and deficiencies Mitchell mentioned he didn’t want to work with parallel those which critics hurl at USA Rugby. Nonetheless, Mitchell is the head coach of the United States Men’s National Team. His international test record is impeccable. His history of coaching professional sides is checkered, to put it politely. His future with the Eagles?