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Mitchell: Martyr or misunderstood?

John Mitchell’s latest failed coaching stint at Sale begs the question; is the former All Black boss a martyr or simply misunderstood?

It’s an ongoing debate that has flared up in the wake of Mitchell walking out on the English club roughly a month after joining the struggling Premiership outfit.

Mitchell has a reputation as a borderline rugby dictator, an unapologetic and pragmatic operator who lives and dies by the proverbial sword. His militaristic coaching philosophy has been both the catalyst to many a team’s success and the driving force behind its downfall.

No-one can question Mitchell’s pedigree as a world-class coach. Prior to implosions at Test and provincial levels, he boasted a success rate of over 80 percent as All Black mentor and masterminded the resurgence of the Johannesburg-based Lions, guiding the union to their first Currie Cup title in 12 years and first Currie Cup triumph on their home turf in 61 years in 2011.

What makes Mitchell such a controversial figure is that his success – almost certainly – comes at a cost. An astute coach he is, but a competent man manager he isn’t.

Ask All Black greats Jeff Wilson and Christian Cullen (whom, amongst others, Mitchell dropped without the courtesy of a phone call), former Lions captain Josh Strauss, loose forward Jonathan Mokuena, Sale flyhalf Danny Cipriani or any disgruntled former Western Force player their opinion of Mitchell and they are bound to share a common view of the man.

Sale owner Brian Kennedy, in a statement, cited “personal reasons” for Mitchell’s sudden departure and until details surrounding said personal problems come to light, the 48-year-old should receive the benefit of the doubt regarding the Sale saga.

Will he, given his history? I doubt it. But I for one will reserve judgment on the latest aborted venture until Mitchell provides clarity on the matter.

The next question in the curious case of John Mitchell is where to from here? He was scheduled to rejoin the Lions in February in an advisory capacity on new head coach Johan Ackermann's backroom staff.

However, given the Sale setback and Mitchell’s wandering eye for the next top job, it remains to be seen if the Lions will honour the deal or whether the Golden Lions Rugby Union and New Zealand-born Mitchell are heading for their second court battle in as many years.  

The fact of the matter is Mitchell will never change his ways. He's an old dog who, whilst being willing to learn new tricks as far as on-field tactics and keeping up with the evolution of the game are concerned, remains a no-nonsense pit bull who is not going to roll over or lie down for anyone.

As such, interested parties – and there will be several – will have to weigh up the pros and cons when considering whether and in which role to appoint Mitchell.

For example, the afflicted Mitchell may be a worthy candidate to resurrect Scottish rugby, given his rescue job at the Lions, but less so the ideal option to take over the Wallaby reins from Robbie Deans, a polarising figure in his own right.   

Being a martyr or misunderstood aside, until Mitchell finally hangs up his coaching hat, a fair assessment of Mitchell’s legacy and place on the rugby coaching hierarchy cannot be made.

By Quintin van Jaarsveld

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