PRETORIA – There is a new sheriff in town at Loftus Versfeld, and he comes with all the promise of turning around the misfortunes of the Bulls in Super Rugby.
Former All Blacks and Lions coach John Mitchell was unveiled as the new Executive: Rugby at the Bulls in an announcement done under the veil of darkness at Loftus on Thursday night.
Mitchell’s appointment comes on the back of the Bulls’ disastrous Super Rugby season, where they have only won three of their 11 matches this season under the guidance of Nollis Marais.
The 53-year-old Mitchell becomes only the second person to occupy the position at Loftus, after former Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer lasted a few months before taking up the position of Springbok coach in 2012.
Mitchell is currently the head coach for the USA national team, and was meant to guide them to the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
But he will be returning to South Africa in July after his final assignment with the USA in their three-match series against Ireland.
The widely travelled Mitchell comes with a strong rugby pedigree, having been forwards coach for Irelandand England.
He has been head coach at Sale Sharks in England, and was also in charge of the Chiefs in Super Rugby in 2000 and briefly coached the UKZN team in the Varsity Shield in 2013.
The arrival of Mitchell in the capital means that while Marais will continue to coach the team until the end of the Super Rugby season, he is not lost to Bulls rugby and will now be head coach of the Currie Cup side.
Marais was the second Bulls coach in as many years after taking over from Frans Ludeke, who was given the boot at the end of the 2015 Super Rugby season after winning two Super Rugby titles and a Currie Cup trophy between 2009 and 2010.
“It’s amazing when you look at life, and things happen for a reason. I’ve been in the country for seven years now and I call it home, I love the place. I guess I’ve been away from this level and South African rugby for a period of time now,” Mitchell said.
“When you get parked up as a coach, it is important to go away and learn. Having been here as a coach with numerous teams, having good days and tough ones as well, where I come from in New Zealand, there are many similarities to here that I like.
“The Bulls, when they are at their best, they are extremely aggressive and when they play at tempo, they have also put sides away in the past.
“We are not far away from that ingredient, but what we’ve got to do is make sure that people are open to intervention and changing their mindset.
“I feel I can bring a positive element of change, but one has to be careful as well, as ultimately at the end of the day, I’ve got a lot to learn. For me to judge people based on performance and competency would be totally unfair.
“I will do a lot of listening and watching when I get involved in working with Nollis, and look to move the programme forward.”
At the same time, Mitchell has warned against the belief that he will bring instant success at the Bulls, and says that they will need to build on the foundation that has been laid by Marais, while also changing their way of thinking and approach to the game.
“I think life for me is about what you can control, and what I can control is our processes. I think it is exciting times for us and we can do things slightly different. This is not a big change, this is about refreshing and updating our ways,” he said.
“The board and everyone involved have seen that there has to be significant intervention to get back to where we used to be and get on top of the mantle again. It is going to be a lot of hard work, no doubt about that, but it is going to be fun as well.
“There is a particular way of doing it and nothing is ever improbable, it’s just the change of mindset. We just have to sharpen up and become confident, rugby is about confidence. The team at the moment just lacks a bit of confidence, and there is huge talent there and there has always been talent at the Bulls, and it will remain.
“At the end of the day, we have to present ourselves that opportunity and at the moment, we are way off that. But we have a Currie Cup to embed, we’ve got to get our metres up and we have to go into a pre-season where we can build on top of that.
“I’d like to think that within two competitions, we’ll start to show significant change in our mentality and approach.”