4 Oct

Mitchell and Who?
by Paul Waite
4 Oct 2001

For those of you coming along late in the piece, John Mitchell was appointed yesterday as All Black Coach through to the next World Cup in 2003.

At age 37 Mitchell is the youngest coach of the All Blacks ever, and interestingly he is also the first never to have coached an NPC team.

His perceived strengths are discipline, emphasis on the basic techniques especially in the forwards, and an ability to get his players’ respect and to motivate them. In essence, Mitchell is seen as a strong coach who has a very clear vision of where his team should be going, and who will not let anything get in the way of the attainment of that goal.

In interviews yesterday several interesting tidbits of information emerged, some directly from Mitchell’s statements and some which may or may not be inferred from them.

Firstly, he made a direct comment about requiring players who are top performers in their positions on the field and that he is not a fan of “utilities”. This can be viewed as a direct reference to the experiment of converting Taine Randell to openside flanker by the previous coaches in preference to form openside in the Super 12 Marty Holah, something we at Haka campaigned against from the outset. If we’ve seen the last of that then we presumably have also seen the last of Troy Flavell playing at lock; something that fans of tight forwards playing in the tight will applaud.

Another clear statement was made in reply to a question about what Mitchell thought when he watched the lineouts in the final test in Sydney against Australia this season. Mitchell obviously avoided bagging anyone, but did say that he viewed it as important for the team to develop what he called “flexibility” on the field. For those of us who were frustrated by the way the All Blacks kept booting penalties to touch for ill-fated lineouts in the closing minutes when a moment’s thought from the skipper might have brought better results this is good news.

Following on from that Mitchell was asked about the All Black captaincy. Naturally it was an unfair question at this stage and it brought the predictable “all positions are up for grabs” response, and another general statement to the effect “there will be casualties” in selections. But considering his position regarding on-field thinking and leadership, Oliver’s tenure as skipper might well be a short-lived thing. Certainly on his lineout throwing alone Oliver is on shaky ground. The $64,000 question is therefore: who else? All we can do on that is come out with another cliche: watch this space.

Looking around the squad which Smith and Gilbert assembled the country’s best players are largely already picked, but there are some which might well be looking back on 2001 as the season they were dropped.

As a hard No.8 himself Mitchell might well be looking at Ron Cribb with a view to drawing a line through his name on the squad list for the tour to Ireland, Scotland and Argentina. After coming to prominence in 2000, Cribb has largely faded and apart from a reasonable showing in the last two tests has been ineffective. Other candidates here are: Jerry Collins, Paul Miller, and maybe even Scott Robertson.

At lock Mark Cooksley is definitely still in the frame, although the potential and performances of Chris Jack are hard to ignore and Norm Maxwell is still as committed as ever.

Speculation will be at an end soon, with Mitchell naming the squad to tour at the end of this season to Ireland, Scotland and Argentina. Although initial reports had it that Mitchell would only play a part in these selections, it now transpires that he will head a selection panel which includes former coaches Smith, Gilbert and co-selector Peter Thorburn, and will have absolute control over the process. We expect the squad will be announced sometime after the NPC finishes around the end of October.

Aside from the issues of playing personnel, the public have been wondering who Mitchell will choose for his assistant. Nobody has any idea as to who this might be at present, though some rumours have been circulated that Kevin Greene might join him since he and Mitchell worked well together in the Super 12 for The Chiefs this year.

For the time being we have the honeymoon period where everyone is optimistic over the new coach and what he might achieve.

However good Mitchell is, he nevertheless does not poesses a magic wand. He has the same player base as Smith and Gilbert had, with the same abilities and deficiencies of technique. He has one end-of-season tour and then some warm-ups next year to weld a team together. After that he will be judged, as Smith and Gilbert were, on how the All Blacks perform against Australia in the Tri-Nations.

Mitchell has to coach the All Blacks to beat Australia both in New Zealand and on their turf to win back the Bledisloe Cup in 2002.

Nothing else will do.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

Haka editor-in-chief. Please do not feed.

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