WP acted like amateurs

GAVIN RICH, writing in the Weekend Argus, says Western Province administrators failed to do their homework on John Mitchell when considering him for the Stormers head coaching job.

Western Province president Thelo Wakefield’s claim that it was 'poor people skills' that sunk John Mitchell’s chances of becoming Stormers coach can’t pass without critical analysis and comment.

Firstly, let’s deal with the thoroughness that Wakefield referred to when he said investigations had been made into Mitchell’s suitability for the job. A senior WP board member who phoned me to talk about the line I had taken in my columns asked me if, seeing I knew so much about him, I was thinking of writing a book about Mitchell.

Surely someone who has influence on whether Mitchell gets hired or not should have been eager to find out everything that there was to know about the man? If you google Mitchell’s name the fact that Mitchell has in fact already done a book with me should hit you on the first page.

In the interests of thoroughness, and particularly seeing that the director of rugby Gert Smal was backing Mitchell so strongly, surely the base line competency requirement should be that you try and get both sides of the story?

For a start, the talk of Mitchell’s supposed transgressions at the Lions needs to include the significant detail that none of the 28 charges that they brought against him was able to stick. The judge awarded the case to Mitchell hands down, and the Lions had to make a substantial payout to him.

Perhaps that payout has greater significance for what is happening now than many people think. I understand it wasn’t just the Lions that exerted pressure on Wakefield and his henchmen not to employ Mitchell, but Saru officials too. We know the Lions were broke at the time, so who would have footed the bill for much of that payout?

At some stage rugby officials in this country have to become accountable and have to start acting for the good of the game rather than themselves and the administrators buddy network. If the interests of the Stormers was to be put first, and the homework that Smal had done on Mitchell was to be respected, then the officials who opposed it needed to do more than listen to people who were left aggrieved by Mitchell nearly four years ago.

Mitchell has invested a considerable amount in a life coach and that people change and undergo personal growth is surely something the Lions are well aware of, for their current chief executive Rudolf Straeuli was the most vilified rugby personality in the country 12 years ago.

Mitchell has a reputation for being a disciplinarian, but if you speak to him about it you will find that he has a different attitude after three and a half years of soul searching. And anyway, the situation he was greeted with at the Lions demanded that he be a disciplinarian.

When he arrived at the Lions he took charge of a team that had lost every Super Rugby game that year. He was flabbergasted at his first practice to see the condition of the players. The situation demanded that he be tough, and one of the charges brought against him in the hearing was that in telling off Josh Strauss for drinking soft drinks, he told him he was fat and unfit.

Perhaps Mitchell’s biggest problem is that he is a proper professional in a sport that is still too inhabited by people with an amateur mindset. He believes that the professional world demands performance, which was why he drove the Lions players so hard. They were a young group that struggled to understand what was required of a professional sportsman, so he had to get it through to them the hard way.

It worked too, for within 12 months of taking charge of the Lions for the first time they won the Currie Cup. It was a Currie Cup that counted too, for his team of no name brands had to beat full strength WP and Sharks teams laden with Springbok players to win it.

One of the things the Lions players had against Mitchell was that two days after that final he had them out on the field doing what he referred to as exit fitness tests. Mitchell explained it by saying he needed to have a fitness marker to work from the following season and if he didn’t do it then there would be no other time to do it as the players were about to go on holiday.

I imagine a few football managers such as Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal might have done the same, and not a hair would have been turned. For British football is truly professional, and if you look at the managers who have been successful, it definitely isn’t a club for the Mr Nice Guy.

During the writing of the book, Mitchell once asked me if football managers like Ferguson and Mourinho would have survived had they applied their approach to the overly sensitive local rugby environment. I took his point.

WP’s decision last week was wrong on so many levels, but maybe for Mitchell it was the right one. For him to be effective, he needs to be in a fully professional environment with commitment to achievement and excellence. After last week, I'm not sure WP rugby is at that point.

Mitchell on what happened at the Lions in 2012

Photo: Chris Ricco/BackpagePix

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Simon Borchardt