Bulls director of rugby John Mitchell. Photo: EPA/ Tony McDonough
JOHANNESBURG - John Mitchell will return to Ellis Park for the first time on Saturday since he left the Golden Lions in somewhat controversial fashion in 2012, but this time he’ll arrive as the enemy, as the coach of the Blue Bulls.

Plenty has changed at the Lions headquarters since Mitchell coached the team to Currie Cup glory in 2011 and helped lay the foundations for the success they achieved in subsequent years under Johan Ackermann.

The Lions between 2013 and now, under the former Springbok lock, won the Currie Cup again in 2015, played in two Super Rugby finals and have produced 14 Boks.

Ackermann has now left the union, with the team now coached by Swys de Bruin, while the team - be it at Super Rugby or Currie Cup level - looks markedly different to when Mitchell was in charge. The former All Blacks coach left the Lions in the latter stages of the 2012 Super Rugby campaign, after a group of disgruntled players apparently requested that he resign.

Now he returns to the scene of where he first made his mark in South African rugby, but as Bulls head coach and executive of rugby.

“I haven’t really thought about it,” said Mitchell on Wednesday about his return to Ellis Park this weekend.

“I’m sure I’ll enjoy the experience, even if I’m not one to get too sentimental about these sorts of things. I’ve obviously got a lot of great memories of my time spent there and also have some great friendships.

“But that is a chapter in my life that is closed. I’m in a new chapter now and excited about it. I’m really just looking forward to what should be a great contest and us giving ourselves an opportunity to win.”

Mitchell spent three years at the Lions, between 2010 and 2012; when the union was struggling financially and battling to stay in touch with the likes of the Bulls in terms of performance.

He might have helped the team, captained by Josh Strauss, to Currie Cup glory in 2011, but the Lions still battled to make an impression in Super Rugby and were relegated (to make way for the Southern Kings) from the competition in 2013.

“The Lions have written a wonderful story... we all know where they were when I came in. From that starting point to now is quite something. They do, however, face a new set of challenges with a new leadership team coming in,” said Mitchell, referring to the change at head coach level.

“But with the group they’ve built over the last few years, they should be able to sustain and continue their success. The Lions really are the benchmark now in the country according to which we all measure ourselves, so that’s remarkable. They’ve certainly sent a message to the other franchises and it’s now up to us to try and match them and even surpass them.”

It’s uncanny how similar the current situation at the Bulls is to the one at the Lions when Mitchell arrived in 2010. The Lions were somewhat at a crossroads then, as is the case with the Bulls now.

“It’s a case of trying to still put foundations in place,” said Mitchell about his first few weeks in charge of the Pretoria-based team. “It’s important to also keep the bigger picture in mind and that is Super Rugby. 

"What I’m doing now is going through a selection process, identifying new talent who could potentially play Super Rugby next year. I’m also trying to create some kind of team cohesion and seeing how individuals react in certain situations.”

There’s not much to choose between the Lions and Bulls at the moment, with both teams having won three times in the Currie Cup, but Mitchell’s men have played a game less (seven) than the Lions (eight). The Bulls go into Saturday’s match following a bye, while the Lions won in Kimberley last time out, and also beat the Pumas before that.

“The Lions are playing some good rugby again,” said Mitchell. “The youngsters are gaining experience all the time and it helps them that they have some quality Super Rugby players in the group as well. It should be a good contest.”

Both Mitchell and De Bruin will name their lineups for the match on Thursday.

The Star

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