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‘It was every man for himself’

Former Lions coach John Mitchell says an orchestrated campaign was run against him during Super Rugby in 2012.

After coaching the Lions to the Currie Cup title in 2011 – their first since 1999 – things fell apart in Super Rugby. While they won their opening match against the Cheetahs at home, they then lost 11 in a row (including four overseas) before beating the Sharks at Ellis Park. Super Rugby then took a break for the June Tests, with the Lions – who were last in the South African conference – facing relegation from the tournament, although Saru had yet to confirm it and there remained a lot of uncertainty among the Lions players regarding their futures.

When Mitchell reported back to work on 18 June, a scheduled meeting with Lions president Kevin de Klerk was cancelled. De Klerk then phoned him later that night and told Mitchell that he had ‘lost the change room’. That saw the coach meet with his players.

‘We had a good meeting, but it also seemed orchestrated,’ writes Mitchell in his new book Mitch – The Real Story. ‘The players said they wanted advance warning of what they would be doing in training. Deon van Rensburg and JC van Rensburg were designated as the guys to whom I would report; I would inform them about what the players could expect in the next few training sessions.

‘They also felt Lions conditioning coach Wayne Taylor had too much say, that the schedule was too heavy and that they’d been overtraining. This came after a very tough first session of training the day before. But we had to train hard because the players had just had two and a half weeks off. We needed to rebuild their anaerobic threshold in functional game situations and toughen them up with grappling. Someone in the player group had clearly contacted De Klerk that night and complained about the arduous nature of the training session.’

After meeting with the players and identifying the problems, Mitchell asked them if they could move on and try rectify them.

‘Cobus Grobbelaar looked me in the eye. “No,” he said. “You have to go!”‘

Mitchell says he was not surprised by the flanker’s comment.

‘I had made him work, made him play for his position. When I joined the Lions, I didn’t treat him as the blue-eyed boy that perhaps some of my predecessors had. I knew I would never be able to rely on his support, as it is natural for a player to react negatively to a coach when he is not given what he wants. I had put Derick Minnie ahead of Grobbelaar in the pecking order and Jaco Kriel was coming through as well.’

Mitchell goes on to reveal that he received a call from De Klerk, during the week of the Springboks’ Test against England in PE, saying that his position with the Lions would be put on hold pending an investigation.

After being asked what he was being investigated for, Mitchell eventually received an email five days later.

‘Over time, the seven allegations laid out against me in that initial email would grow to nearly four times that number,’ wrote Mitchell, adding that his relationship with the players had become strained after the loss to the Brumbies at Ellis Park in late April.

‘The Lions had become a difficult group to work with, as they weren’t performing. You have your fun by winning on the field, which was what I was trying to get them to do. On this, I stand by my convictions. I am simply not prepared to drop standards in a quest to be liked. I am not prepared to sit in the position and just take the wages. It is not in my make-up. I strive to win. That is me.’

‘This is why I was perceived to be in conflict with the players and regarded as a disciplinarian. Players felt I was not mentoring them or looking after their needs, which were all about their own survival. I was trying to get them to win – as the team’s coach, I saw that as my primary role.’

Mitchell said the players had had the opportunity at the end of 2011 to air their grievances, but no one did so.

‘Don’t get me wrong, I know you can always make improvements as a coach,’ he added. ‘Perhaps I could have got to know some of the players better in order to optimise their strengths. But when the charges against me grew from seven to 28, an increase of 400%, it started to become evident that there was an orchestrated campaign being run against me, no matter what I might try to do, and the catalyst was the uncertainty about our Super Rugby status the following year.

‘Josh [Strauss] wanted to go to Glasgow; many players wanted out of their contracts. It wasn’t about the Lions any more – it was every man for himself. And, as a consequence, I was marginalised as coach.’

In November 2012, Mitchell was found not guilty of all complaints of misconduct levelled against him by the Golden Lions Rugby Union, but after briefly returning to work he decided not to resume his role as head coach (his forwards coach, Johan Ackermann, was acting head coach by then).

‘My contract still had a year to run – though, in the Lions’ mind, they probably thought I might have two years left, as I was entitled to exercise my option of staying on until 2014. But I knew there was no chance of that. I realised that I would do well to just last the week, I was feeling that low.

‘So, the following week, after taking the weekend to think about it and to make absolutely sure I was doing the right thing, I went to the Lions management in an amicable mood and spoke to them in an adult manner. I told them they had everything in place with the team and I could make myself available as a consultant for them if they got back into Super Rugby, but that the leadership was already in place and I was prepared to negotiate out of my contract.’