John Mitchell has wandered far and wide in his coaching career - Sale Sharks, England, Waikato and head honcho of the All Blacks at the last World Cup - before pitching up in his latest role as head coach of the Super 14 franchise Western Force. Such travels around the world game have earned him respect, which is manifested best by the fact that it is not just mountains of cash that attracted stars such as Ryan Cross, Drew Mitchell, Nathan Sharpe and Matt Giteau to move to Perth.
It could easily have been London Wasps, though, a job he pursued until the Force offered terms. But what all this means is that his view on rugby is multi-dimensional. A former All Black and part of Clive Woodward's coaching staff of the Red Rose, he has experienced both northern and southern hemisphere styles and philosophies. Frequently they contrast as much as the weather. So it is worth picking his brains over the rugby being played at the moment.
"England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the home nations all have the ability to kick with length, something [Dan] Carter gives the All Blacks, but I think their back rows have all become too big," Mitchell said. "The game has become so dynamic and mobile, and in that breakdown area between attack and defence you need players with the ability to win that contest.
"To me, you almost need three openside flankers, and why do you still need to have a good lineout? Don't get me wrong, set-piece is still important, but having the best line-out in a competition does not determine success," he said. Which is anathema to the prevailing mentality in the Six Nations that demands retention of possession and multi-phased attacks, although there has been a slight shift to a more unstructured, expansive game. It came from Wales and their Grand Slam success in 2005, but it was born from necessity rather than desire.
The importance of the tackle area has finally been understood in England, though, as Brian Ashton has picked an openside, Magnus Lund, to play No 7 and scurry, scrap and tackle non-stop.
But surely the line-out still matters? "In a contrived, multi-phased game it was probably acceptable, but I think you need to get more excited about defence, even more than attack, because the way the game is going you cannot rely on dominating and controlling attack for long periods of time.
"Some nights, attack will turn to shit and you need something to turn back on, and if you look at the All Blacks at the moment they seem to have something to go back on. Don't get me wrong, you still need a platform, some of the time, but the game has developed."
Mention of the All Blacks sends a shiver down the spine of every other country. The undoubted favourites for the World Cup in September, they are the acknowledged benchmark. "One difference is that every other side in rugby is totally reliant on their attack and yet they aren't getting enough out of their defence," said Mitchell.
"This Six Nations will tell us a lot about teams' chances in the World Cup. Whether Ireland have enough depth is a question, and how they cope with losing one or two experienced players to injury, as most teams will. But their loose-forward trio and tight five are better ball-players than in the past.
"They certainly have an exciting back-line. France can never be discounted spiritually, and England have some spirit but have too much catch-up to do. If they settle on the same group of players all the way through and have some success in the Six Nations then they have a chance. Brian's a good man, and the players will enjoy his style of play and training." Which is something already spoken about by Mike Tindall and interestingly shown by the comeback from retirement of Jason Robinson.
Despite their frequent supremacy between World Cups, New Zealand have only won the very first, in 1987. "Remember, Australia are never scarred by losing to the All Blacks, that gives them an advantage," said Mitchell. Just one more thing for the northern hemisphere to learn, then.Reuse content