Exit the English convert

Tim Glover says that club and country will miss John Mitchell
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The Independent Online

There was no golden handshake for John Mitchell when he left, although there were, among other things, a silver tray, presented by Clive Woodward on behalf of the Rugby Football Union, with a nice inscription about the inaugural Six Nations' Championship. It proved that England, who forgot to receive their trophy from the Princess Royal at Murrayfield, were not averse to awards per se.

Mitchell's departure also showed a distinct lack of vision on the part of the RFU. "More could have been done to ensure John stayed," Lawrence Dallaglio said, "and I don't think it would have taken much more. I'm very sorry he's gone. His information and knowledge were a huge help. It's important for a team to have continuity and this is a difficult role to fill. Good coaches aren't exactly queueing up in this country."

Dallaglio, the Wasps captain, worked with Mitchell at club and international level. In the interim, John Lamden, a former club flanker who has been in charge of the second team, will look after the Wasps' forwards, while England will have to appoint someone for the summer tour to South Africa.

"What was sad is the way it was done," Nigel Melville, the Wasps director of rugby, said. "England couldn't make a decision as to whether they wanted him or not. It wasn't Clive's fault. He didn't have a contract himself, so how could he employ an assistant?"

Last December Mitchell, a former All Black, was offered a post by Waikato. "Before signing a contract I had a meeting with Clive," Mitchell said. "I simply wanted to know if there was a future for me here. No one could say. I also needed to clear up the job specification. Trying to do two jobs isn't satisfactory. We could've come to an arrangement, but with nobody willing to make a decision I felt I had no choice."

By the time the RFU got round to formalising the Woodward-Mitchell axis last month, it was too late. The two had worked together for 33 Tests, culminating in last Sunday's defeat at Murrayfield, where a large Scotch and water left England with a hangover. "We didn't adapt to the conditions and we didn't play behind the opposition," Mitchell said. "We had enough opportunities to take control but were unable to dominate territory. Scotland deserved to win. We knew exactly what we were walking into and we'd prepared very well. Maybe in hindsight our style was a bit too cavalier in the conditions."

As bad as it was last Sunday, Mitchell found the Slam that got away against Wales at Wembley a year ago harder to swallow. "We controlled the game for long periods but couldn't get clear. It was critical to gain tangible reward prior to the World Cup."

England's World Cup campaign resulted in defeats by New Zealand and, in the quarter-finals, South Africa. "We fell way short of expectation because we made a couple of big mistakes against the All Blacks. The defeats have been one-offs and they will not force England to go into their shell.

"The southern hemisphere-northern hemisphere divide is a myth. There are a lot of strengths over here that the southern-hemisphere countries don't have. England are in an unfortunate position in that whatever they do is regarded as arrogant. Having worked with the players I can assure you it's a misconception. England have the biggest resources and if they can get the system right the next World Cup is within their grasp."

It's a big if. "There is no path here for coaches to follow," Mitchell added. "It's not what you know but who you know. In New Zealand it's based purely on results. I'm going back into a system that has a natural progression, with stepping stones from one level to the next. There are people here trying to address these issues but Clive's influence is small.

"England have changed a lot over the last three years and Woody's had to work through all the politics of the change to professionalism. He had the balls not only to change the style of play but to bring in a New Zealander and a rugby league coach. There will be more progress if the England coaching staff can integrate with the clubs and the players.

"Club rugby is here to stay and we need games of top quality, but fewer of them. The national team is the number- one priority, with the clubs a strong part of it. I'm starting to see positive signs that the clubs are getting closer and the relationships improving."

Even so, Mitchell's "lack of faith" in the system was a main reason for his return home. An influential No 8, he came to prominence as a coach when he worked with Ireland in 1996 before joining Sale. When Paul Turner left the Manchester club, Mitchell took over as player-coach. "My original plan was to play rugby for a couple of years but then I was landed with the whole shooting match. That was never my intention, although I'm very grateful for the opportunities that have arisen."

Last year Sale, who are adept at parting company with talented individuals, had a players' meeting and Mitchell was ousted. Nevertheless, taking Sale to the cup final in 1997 is one of his proudest memories. "We were an average team," he said, "but we had tremendous resolve and desire."

With Dick Best announcing he has "no intention of being assistant coach to anyone", Mitchell suggests the vacancy at Woodward's side could be filled by either Andy Robinson (Bath), John Wells (Leicester) or Dean Ryan (Bristol). "The quality's there and although club preparation is quite different, an Englishman would do very well."

At 36, Mitchell is young for a coach, and his open-ended contract with Waikato gives him flexibility and the freedom to work as a consultant. "I'm not cutting myself off from England forever," he said.

As it is, he is not severing his ties with Wasps. "We will set up a reciprocal arrangement by which Wasps and Waikato can learn from each other," Melville said. "I'm going to make sure John stays involved. We'll send some players and coaches out to New Zealand in the off-season and vice versa. There is scope for research and development, especially of younger players. He has a lot to offer and who knows what the future holds?"

While Wasps were engaged in the Tetley's Bitter Cup semi-final with Bristol yesterday, Mitchell - "I'll get videos of their matches and follow their results on the internet" - was inHamilton watching Waikato Chiefs against New South Wales Waratahs. He left London on Wednesday, his excess baggage including gifts not just from the RFU but from the England squad and Wasps.

"Basically we are all in the game for the same reasons," Mitchell said. "We want success but we also want to enjoy the camaraderie and have a few beers. It's been quite emotional. It's not until you say goodbye that you realise what kind of an impact has been made on people's lives."