John Mitchell has what it takes to lift the Stormers out of their quagmire of complacency, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Eddie Jones believed in the Stormers. When I sat down with the then Japan coach in Coventry two months ago, Jones told me why the Cape franchise would win the Vodacom Super Rugby trophy in the next two years.
Jones said that the Stormers have all the raw materials to become a champion team. It was a big statement to make considering the Stormers' dismal Super Rugby play-off record (played seven, won one, lost six).
Jones felt that the side wanted for attitude and tactical direction. He intended to address both issues when he joined the side in the pre-season. Jones was confident that the Stormers would transform into a well-balanced unit that commanded respect before the end of the 2016 tournament.
A lot has happened since that conversation. Japan went on to complete a third World Cup win. Jones arrived in Cape Town at the beginning of November, and was treated like a messiah. Unfortunately, he left the Mother City a week later to pursue an opportunity with the England national side.
Jones is gone, but his ambitions remain. Indeed, they are the same ambitions of Western Province director of rugby Gert Smal.
Smal is adamant that the Stormers will strike out in a bold new direction in 2016. What he hasn't been afraid to say from the outset is that the Stormers need a foreign coach with the necessary skills and experience to set the team on the right path. The inference is that no local coach, or at least none who are available, fits the description. It's sad, but true.
It's for this reason why John Mitchell is such an attractive alternative. The New Zealander has immersed himself in the South African culture since moving here to coach the Lions in 2010. Prior to that, he was at the helm of the Force. And prior to that, he boasted an 82% winning record with the All Blacks.
In terms of philosophy, Mitchell has more in common with Jones than most may believe. Both believe discipline and fitness are at the core of any team success. Both value the territory game, but understand that a team cannot kick and defend for 80 minutes and expect to win trophies. Indeed, there's reason to believe that Mitchell is the man to initiate the change the Stormers so desperately need.
Inevitably, there are some who will resist this change. Already there is talk of senior players opposing the appointment. My response to that would be: Why?
The 2015 season ended on a catastrophic note. The Stormers obtained the seventh-most log points during the league phase, but still finished in the top six due to their winning of the South African conference. They went on to lose the qualifying play-off against the Brumbies, in Cape Town, by 20 points.
What was particular disappointing about that outcome is that few people at the Stormers HQ seemed concerned. It said a lot for the culture that has developed at the franchise over the years. The coaches and players have pushed on with a formula that saw them contest the 2010 final. They have added nothing new in subsequent years, and have lost three play-offs at home during that period. How can that be deemed acceptable? How can anybody dare to suggest that this franchise is on the right path?
Change is overdue. I'm not suggesting the Stormers overhaul their structures. Indeed, one of the biggest mistakes the Sharks' new coaching staff made in 2015 was to neglect the defence set down by the previous regime. The Stormers must add to their existing game in their ambition to become a more balanced and effective team.
Again, there is no coach in the current set-up who is capable of boosting the Stormers' attack. There isn't a coach who boasts the necessary experience, who has succeeded and failed at the highest level and gained a greater appreciation for what works.
Mitchell represents the Stormers' best chance of progress.
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