All Blacks face cull as Mitchell takes command

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The Independent Online

Eighteen months ago, John Mitchell ended a two-and-a-half year stint as England's assistant coach, during which he had been routinely banned from press conferences for talking out of turn and had found himself on the wrong end of a whispering campaign by Twickenham's John Bull element, who resented the presence of a mere New Zealander in the top echelons of the red rose hierarchy. Yesterday, Mitchell held a press conference of his own after landing the All Black coaching job – by some distance the grandest post in the world game. It marked a change of fortune bordering on the astonishing.

Typically, Mitchell celebrated by shooting from the hip. "There will inevitably be casualties; in some instances, the players I want will differ from those who have been preferred in internationals this year," said the former Waikato captain, who also led the midweek All Blacks on their British tour eight years ago. There was more. Asked whether he would stick with the Otago hooker Anton Oliver as national captain, the new coach replied ominously: "That is an issue I will have to address." At this rate, Mitchell will soon have to gag himself.

He replaces Wayne Smith in the hottest of all rugby seats, and will remain in charge until the end of the 2003 World Cup. First, though, he must negotiate an awkward autumn tour of Scotland, Ireland and Argentina, which begins in November. Not so long ago, an All Black squad would barely have batted a collective eyelid at the thought of visiting Murrayfield or Lansdowne Road, let alone Buenos Aires. But the mystique of the silver fern evaporated on World Cup semi-final day two years ago, when the French ran rings round John Hart's talented but under-baked vintage. Since then, New Zealand have been wholly eclipsed by Australia as the team at the top of the log.

It may well be that the All Black aura has disappeared for good: in this professional age, when a side like New Zealand can play more Tests in two seasons than they once played in a decade, everyone knows everything about everyone else. But Mitchell can at least put his nation back on the World Cup track. The All Blacks won the first tournament in 1987, but have not been on the right cycle since. They were a great side under Wayne Shelford in 1989, but over the hill by 1991. They were an even greater side in 1996, but that maturity had been missing the previous year, when the Springboks won the Webb Ellis Trophy on their own soil. Come 1999, Hart was forced to field a new combination, having seen the backbone of the '96 vintage retire en masse in 1998.

According to many good judges, Mitchell will press the right buttons. Murray McCaw, the chairman of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union, said his board's choice would bring "old-fashioned All Black values", as well as innovation, to the mix.

Meanwhile, the Waikato Chiefs' outside-half, Glen Jackson, said of his recent Super 12 coach: "John has mana, which is Samoan for pride and toughness." Old New Zealand hard-heads like Colin Meads and Brian Lochore would be the first to agree that the All Blacks have been in need of some mana for far too long.

Mitchell, who beat more than 20 rivals to the job, may not be the most experienced coach in the paddock – he landed his first serious post, at Sale, in the mid-90s – but he made a genuine impact on England's forwards in the early years of Clive Woodward's reign, and was a major hit with the Chiefs in his first Super 12 campaign. "I wouldn't be here but for the England experience; it was my learning ground," he said. Given the expectation levels in New Zealand, he has a lot more learning ahead of him.

Ireland have dropped the Lions lock, Jeremy Davidson, from their squad for the Six Nations match with Wales in Cardiff on Saturday week. Mick Galwey, the 34-year-old veteran from Munster, replaces him in a party featuring two other newcomers: Eric Miller, the Leinster flanker, and Mike Mullins, the Munster centre, who fill in for the injured Simon Easterby and Geordan Murphy.