Rugby Union: Mitchell extends his ambitions

Paul Trow hears how a New Zealander can help Sale and England
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The Independent Online
A Month ago, it seemed that the future of English rugby might rest in the hands of a New Zealander. Even though the Auckland coach Graham Henry eventually rejected the Rugby Football Union's advances, the fact that he had been openly courted was perhaps the last straw for Jack Rowell.

Ironically, as the RFU attempt to reassemble the jigsaw puzzle that Rowell upturned by resigning as England manager and coach last week, another Kiwi has moved into the frame. Whether Roger Uttley succeeds Rowell or not, the back-up coaching team looks certain to include the name of John Mitchell.

The miracles that Mitchell performed last season as player-coach at under- resourced Sale confirmed this combative back-row forward's powers of motivation and his reputation for upsetting the odds. Tipped as relegation candidates following the departure of Paul Turner, Mitchell's predecessor, the Cheshire club reached the Pilkington Cup final and almost qualified for Europe.

"I've been briefed to coach England A but it's up to the people at the top to confirm that," Mitchell said last week. "Obviously, I've given a favourable indication. There's been no suggestion about me taking over from Jack Rowell - that would be a bit early in my career.

"But I have experience of handling players full-time and of international rugby. I never played Test rugby, but I regard my six games on tour with the All Blacks as caps. Being an All Black is the ultimate achievement." To those who doubt whether he can be as passionate about another country's cause, Mitchell, whose playing career also included spells in France and Ireland, said: "I'm patriotic and loved playing for my country, but you've got to take an opportunity when it comes along - if it's right for you."

Not surprisingly, Sale, who have new backers, took their opportunity last week when they signed up the 33-year-old New Zealander as their rugby manager for the next five years. Now, as Sale prepare to entertain Saracens in their opening match of the new league campaign this afternoon, Mitchell's focus is strictly on his club, where he is aiming to prove that last season's success was no fluke. "If anything, we underachieved," he said bluntly. "We had a chance to qualify for Europe and get some silverware, and didn't.

"But we have to build on that. We had difficulty closing the deal. I am not sure we were ready for it. We ran a thin squad and it was a bit stretched towards the end of the season. We'll be better prepared if we get a similar chance, but 11 other teams will also be better this season. It's going to be much harder, especially now Richmond and Newcastle have come into the competition."

Mitchell came to prominence in 1993 when he captained Waikato to famous victories over the Lions and then Auckland in the Ranfurly Shield, and led the All Blacks' midweek team on their tour of Britain - demonstrating the man-management skills and clarity of approach which have helped sustain Sale.

"It's important the philosophy comes down from the person at the top," he said. "The structure and organisation have got to be right if you are working together for a common goal. Our players are underrated but they work well for each other. Tom Beim and David Rees are both capable of playing for England. They give us tremendous pace and if you have that in the modern game it makes you dangerous. Jim Mallinder is like red wine, he keeps getting better with age. But we still need more depth in the squad and we have a big signing coming up soon."

Sale's most recent signing is the former Bath and England hooker Graham Dawe, who is 38 next month. He is hardly a long-term prospect, but there is no danger of Sale recreating Dad's Army, especially as Mitchell and the former England and Lions scrum-half Dewi Morris, both nearly five years younger than Dawe, do not plan to play again.

"Dewi's role as technical adviser will be to prepare dossiers on the opposition," Mitchell said. "I haven't quite decided whether I'm hanging my boots up, but my playing days are definitely coming to an end. My forte is coaching and I've got to concentrate on that."

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