John Mitchell, having overseen their fairytale Currie Cup triumph on October 29 last year, has now been suspended, adding to all the financial worries and the threat of SuperRugby expulsion hanging over the Lions’ heads.
To say Mitchell has an overbearing personality would be putting it mildly. There are very few people in Lions rugby who are willing to say they will be sad to see him go.
The New Zealander deserves credit for restoring pride to the Lions, but once he had done that, his limited man-management skills came to the fore and Mitchell’s old-school views on discipline and treating players like kids in boarding school eventually lost him the team.
In this professional era when even the players’ breakfasts are measured, getting them to run a marathon around the Johannesburg Stadium athletics track just two weeks before their opening SuperRugby fixture looks pretty dumb.
Mitchell has had a simmering relationship with the media as well. While any dissenting voices amongst the team were quickly put in their place, any questions from the press that Mitchell did not approve of would lead to cold-shoulder treatment and public ridicule.
I was not the only journalist who was told “Well I don’t know what match you were watching, mate.” Mitchell seemed to take delight in cutting down the media, preferably in front of large audiences in the Lions auditorium, as he did one day to the 94.7 Highveld Stereo man, who’s question was totally well-meaning and non-confrontational. And that’s the same radio station that have been long-term sponsors and supporters of the embattled team.
The players have been the brunt of some criticism suggesting they wanted to get rid of Mitchell because they just wanted a nice holiday when it came to training.
But it took enormous courage, led by impressive captain Josh Strauss, for them to stand up to their bullying coach. There is a good spirit of hard-working endeavour at Ellis Park, as president Kevin de Klerk pointed out.
“The spirit in the camp is very good and, if you think where the Lions were three years ago, we are substantially better off now. Rugby is a dynamic business and we would love it to be a plain-sailing ship, but we fool ourselves if we think that will be the case. We will deal with the John Mitchell matter with the correct protocol,” De Klerk said.
When De Klerk says the correct protocol, he is not beating around the bush – the Lions will have to religiously stick to the straight and narrow in the disciplinary process if they are going to successfully rid themselves of Mitchell.
The 48-year-old will show the same street-fighting attitude he imbued in the Lions in challenging his suspension. Mitchell has done it before – in 2008 the Western Force’s senior players staged a similar intervention, but his watertight contract meant they could not sack him.
Which is why there has been no criticism of Mitchell spewing forth from either the players or the board, and why De Klerk has made an about-turn and stressed that the suspension was not driven by the team.
“It’s inaccurate to say it was player-driven, it was not just the players on their own. And one can’t say Josh Strauss led the complaints, that would be inaccurate too. There were a number of issues,” De Klerk said.
The reason for this is that if it was just the players that had complaints about their treatment, Mitchell could turn around and say he was merely doing his best as the coach to make them a winning team, tough-love if you like. A lot of what coaches do to their teams could be considered unfair, but would it be illegal in terms of labour law?
Fortunately, it’s not just the players and media that Mitchell has alienated. It’s sponsors as well.
Did you see a whole heap of extra Lions coverage during their SuperRugby tour this year?
No, and that’s despite the considerable amount of money that MTN were willing to pay for two journalists to travel with the team. The sponsors obviously felt that their effort would be rewarded with extra coverage for the Lions and exposure for themselves.
Unfortunately, the journalists were left to survive on the same scraps given to the Australian and New Zealand reporters … Mitchell would not go out of his way to give them anything extra.
The Lions, under pressure from all sides, desperately need good PR, so it is time they called an end to the John Mitchell era.