England defence coach John Mitchell: ‘Adversity can make you stronger’

John Mitchell is a unique Twickenham presence: a direct link between England’s past and present. Photograph: Matt Impey/Shutterstock

Every now and again John Mitchell bumps into players with whom he worked in his first stint with England between 1997 and 2000. And every time he does so, after 25 years in elite coaching, the same thought occurs to him. “When I see Jason Leonard, Lawrence Dallaglio and Austin Healey I say to them: ‘Jeez, I wish I could coach you now with what I know.’ They just laugh.”

Few rugby people, Eddie Jones included, have had to navigate as many troughs and peaks as the well-travelled Mitchell. If last week’s Calcutta Cup defeat was a bad day at the office, the 56-year-old Kiwi has known plenty worse. When you have been hired and fired as the All Blacks’ head coach, experienced England’s 76-0 loss to Australia in 1998 and signed up for another two and a half years as England’s defence coach alongside the relentless Jones, you develop a keen sense of perspective.

It also makes him a unique Twickenham presence: a direct link between England’s past and present and a key figure in where they go next. If some English supporters, before this weekend’s Italy game, are losing the faith following the Scotland shambles Mitchell argues the jolt could prove a blessing in disguise. “We just didn’t get it right. We acknowledge that and we’re not too proud to say it. [But] when we go to France in 2023 we may look back on that performance as an extremely vital lesson that could help us become world champions again.”

The Mitchell plan for England’s defence remains a crucial cog, as is his close relationships with his players. Before the team last faced Italy in October he even pulled on a blue jersey to set the tone and invited his forwards to steam into him. Sometimes there appear to be two John Mitchells: the stern, bespectacled figure who measures his words carefully in press conferences and the endearingly old-school rugby man who, in more relaxed company, is not averse to telling it as it is.

When first interviewed by the Guardian, way back in 1997 during his first autumn as England’s then forwards coach, he freely admitted to not knowing the words to God Save The Queen and was no fan of traditional northern hemisphere rugby. “In England people seem to want to win games by kicking goals,” he lamented. “That’s a mindset I want to change.”

Fast forward to 2021 and – surprise, surprise – English rugby is still arguing about the best way to play. It was also Jones, ironically, who effectively cost Mitchell his dream job when Australia upset New Zealand in the 2003 World Cup semi-final. As a man who once shared a flat with Warren Gatland and captained Waikato before Ian Foster, the present New Zealand coach – “I didn’t see him becoming a coach as much as I did Warren” – his rugby acumen is not in dispute. There is also a hint of unfinished business in his decision to relocate to England – he and his South African wife, Julie, live near Woking – in pursuit of a red rose triumph in 2023.

If that happens – he also says a role on a summer Lions tour would be “an honour I‘d seriously consider” – it will cap an eventful rugby odyssey. As a teenager he almost went to Canada on a basketball scholarship, played in the same schoolboy pack as Kevin Barrett – father of Beauden, Jordie and Scott – and grew up in the King Country, home of the legendary Colin Meads whose youngest daughter, Shelley, married Mitchell’s brother, Paul.

Mitchell, a quantity surveyor by trade, played six midweek games for the All Blacks without winning a Test cap; playing No 8 in the era of Zinzan Brooke and Wayne Shelford was never going to be simple. Nor was coaching his country. Being jettisoned by the All Blacks, he acknowledges, had a profound effect. “I just fell into this trap of wanting to prove I could make teams win again,” he says, reflecting on the acrimonious ends to spells with Western Force and the Lions in South Africa.

“I lost my way, I think, in terms of being open to learning because I was chasing outcome and being very hard on myself after being publicly exposed after the World Cup. I just went about it the wrong way. I never had a breakdown, I just wasn’t being me. I was so task- and rugby-driven; I’d become obsessed with winning.” Another major catalyst for change was a terrifying episode in Johannesburg just over a decade ago when two intruders broke in to his home. He was stabbed in the arm and leg, tied up and he feared he might not live to see dawn.

“There was a period of getting shivers, of thinking: ‘I might not have a chance here’ followed by a sense of: ‘I’m too young to let this go.’ It felt like an eternity. Ultimately, it was just an hour of havoc but I remember thinking: ‘I need to sort myself out and find a way to be a better person.’”

Having seen his parents split up, the breakdown of his marriage to Kay, mother to their children Daryl and Ciara, was a further source of intense pain. “I made the hardest decision of my life to say I was going to part with three people I loved. The hardest thing was that I was going to hurt three people, which I did.”

At least that traumatic period has had an uplifting recent postscript. Last month Daryl, now 29, smashed 102 off 112 balls in a Christchurch Test against Pakistan for New Zealand. Waking up on the other side of the world, his father had to grab his glasses to double-check the scorecard. “Talking to him, he never thought on that particular day he’d get a hundred.” It just goes to show how rapidly things change in professional sport, a message Mitchell will have been preaching this week.

The proof will be in the Twickenham pudding but Italy may have picked the wrong weekend to face England. “There’s no need for us to have a victim’s mindset. We’ve been dealt that card and we have no choice but to respond. It’s about walking towards our next challenges and making sure we prevent this from happening again. We realise that sometimes you might have to go through disappointment and adversity to come out stronger.”