The mystery of John Mitchell

FUNNY OLD GAME: Former All Blacks coach John Mitchell came out with some pearlers.
PETER MEECHAM/The Press
FUNNY OLD GAME: Former All Blacks coach John Mitchell came out with some pearlers.

It was, in hindsight, a mistake. Admittedly a small one but a mistake those who know John Mitchell would never have made.

Had they been asked to profile the man, one of rugby's more complex and controversial coaches, they would have immediately asked, which one?

Which John Mitchell?

The smiling, charming, successful, smart, athletic, family man - or, the devious, scheming, ruthless, ticking time bomb.

Those who have worked with, played against or befriended the man know there are two John Mitchells. Depending on who you talk to, friend or foe, Mitchell is one, the other and sometimes both in the same day.

And that in a nutshell is why many people are not in the least bit surprised that John Eric Paul Mitchell, saint to some, sinner to others, is embroiled in another brouhaha, this time in Perth where he and the player roster at the Western Force are locked in a power struggle.

Words such as mutiny are being bandied about. The precise details have not been made public but the wild west franchise has called in a retired judge to try to sort the mess. Mitchell's powers over the team were even temporarily revoked, prompting his manager John Fordham to threaten legal action.

Last week an uneasy truce was brokered while the review is finished. Mitchell is technically still the Force's head coach, and his powers have since been reinstated. However, last week his assistant John Mulvihill was calling most of the shots at training and both camps continue to walk on egg shells trying not to give the other any cause for legal redress.

Mitchell is contracted until 2011 and says he wants to stay even though his position would appear untenable. The saga looks as if it may drag on until one side cracks. The Force now appear to want some sort of working relationship to be brokered between coach and team because it can't afford up to $1m to buy Mitchell out of his contract.

On this side of the Tasman, not many are surprised Mitchell is in strife.

He left behind a long list of disgruntled former All Blacks after his tenure as coach ended in 2003.

The list included some greats.

Without the courtesy of a phone call, in 2001 Mitchell dropped Jeff Wilson, Taine Randell and Christian Cullen. Mitchell claimed Cullen was unavailable due to injury but ended up with egg on his face when Cullen went public saying he was fit.

Another player dumped by Mitchell that same year but who until now has kept silent is Scott Robertson. He told the Sunday Star-Times this week what irked him the most was: "Mitchell never gave me a straight answer on why and I asked for one plenty of times. But he'd always change his story. A few years later I ended up having a few beers with him one night and had him on about it. I told him he needed to be straight with players if he wanted them to be loyal."

One accusation often levelled at Mitchell is the booze culture of his teams, although Robertson said: "He's obviously learnt from other mistakes as I see he uses alcohol breath tests at the Force. I don't know what's happening in Perth but it looks like perhaps he hasn't taken on board what I said."

Robertson is one of many players who never knew which John Mitchell would turn up to training: the relaxed, in charge, happy John, or the introverted, brooding, ill-tempered Mitch. There are plenty of stories about his famous temper.

One of the best involves an enraged Mitchell tearing strips off the Force during a halftime speech last year. The story goes Mitchell was indignant his team were not following his gameplan and stormed out of the shed after a few choice words saying "you can coach yourselves".

The players locked the door behind him, and did just that, and went on to comfortably win the match.

During a Super 14 match at North Harbour Stadium last season his displeasure in the coach's box at his team's performance could be heard from the media benches. The air was blue with profanities.

Some his coaching methods are still old school but he has proved equally controversial when embracing the new, infamously hiring life coach and former Waikato rugby commentator Tony Wynne when he was in charge of the All Blacks.

Wynne, who lives in Hamilton, would not go on the record when approached this week by the Star-Times but confirmed he is still in touch with Mitchell, as a friend, and that Mitchell's manager Fordham is now his mentor.

Fordham is best known as former Kangaroos coach Ricky Stuart's manager. Fordham is believed to be a devotee, like Mitchell, to self-betterment and is known to devour self-help books. He declined to be interviewed.

Mitchell can expound battle tactics from the 2000 year old text of Chinese warrior Sun Tzu as well as the latest theories from NBA super coach Phil Jackson. Basketball is a major influence in his coaching. He was a New Zealand age-group representative. Ironically, he turned down a request to be interviewed for this story because former basketball coach and Sunday Star-Times columnist John Dybvig lampooned Mitchell in last week's paper.

With the exception of Cullen - and Force playmaker Matt Giteau who tellingly revealed last week he's not a fan of Mitchell's rugby philosophies - even Mitchell's staunchest critics concede he has an enormous rugby brain; maybe one of the game's best.

And even though his reputation has been tarnished by this latest controversy, coaches of his standing are thin on the ground, and those with ample baggage, such as Eddie Jones, still seem to score high-paying jobs. Closer to home, many doubted Graham Henry would work again after leaving New Zealand in a huff for Wales, let alone be re-appointed after dipping out in the quarter-finals of the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

So what does the future hold for Mitchell? A well-connected former high-ranking NZRU employee told the Star-Times: "All he needs is a strong manager to take care of all the off-field stuff that he's terrible at. But that's his biggest fault. He doesn't seem to accept this.

"He needs to surround himself with good people, as do most people if they want to be successful."

Mitchell famously fell out with his All Blacks manager Andrew Martin, who at the time was, technically, his boss; something Mitchell could not and would not accept. Martin delivered an unflattering portrait of Mitchell in his controversial biography.

And Martin wasn't alone, with Cullen, Tana Umaga, Anton Oliver and team doctor John Mayhew all following suit in their respective biographies. All cited concerns around the team's booze culture.

Ironically, Robertson said it was only after a couple of beers that Mitchell could speak unencumbered.

"And although he dropped me and I had my issues with him I'd still have a beer with him. I don't hold any grudge. He's basically not a bad bloke. He's not perfect, that's all. Let's hope he wins the players back because it will be a short season for him if they won't fully play for him."

MITCHELL MILESTONES

* John Mitchell is one of only three New Zealanders to have played for, captained and coached the All Blacks.

* The bruising No 8 played 134 games for Waikato (86 as captain) and six matches for the (midweek) All Blacks in 1993.

* He moved into semi-retirement as player/coach at Sale and then assisted Sir Clive Woodward's England before returning to New Zealand in 2000.

* In 2001, he coached the Chiefs and that same year assumed the role as All Blacks coach after Wayne Smith was dumped.

* He lost his job after his team's demise at the 2003 world cup, took over the reins at Waikato in 2004 and in 2005 was snapped up by Super 14 expansion team the Western Force, where his future is now in limbo.

Sunday Star Times