Eddie Jones’ ability to deliver a one-liner — aside from his coaching ability — means he will always attract the headlines, but with England 80 minutes away from World Cup glory, it is the work of defence coach John Mitchell whichis one of the most important aspects of the Red Rose’s success.
The New Zealander has helped take the men in white to the next level since joining Jones’ set-up as defence chief in September of last year and his imprint on the side was more than obvious as England shut out the country of his birth in last Saturday’s semi-final in Yokohama.
England conceded just seven points to the All Blacks — who have won the last two World Cups — and even that converted try came from one of their own line-outs malfunctioning.
Mitchell, 55, has worked with England in the past as well as in the country’s domestic league. He has also coached New Zealand in his own right and had stints in South Africa with the Golden Lions and the Blue Bulls.
England had to pay the Bulls £200,000 to secure Mitchell’s services. It was money well spent and now, ironically, it is South Africa who he must plan for in Saturday’s World Cup final.
“Eddie didn’t really need to share his vision with me. I intuitively picked that up when he first started after 2015,” said Mitchell. “What I loved about our conversation was that my remit was very clear.
“It was an easy handshake. I was still contracted at the time, but I had to let the Bulls know I wasn’t going to sign on for another three years so they were going to have to find another coach.
"That was obviously a stumbling block, but we got over that. Eddie is a very good coach. Why would I not want to associate myself with that kind of person?
“Having been with England before and looking at the talent we possess, there was a feeling I could add andcontribute to the team.
“I also knew Eddie on a personal basis having crossed paths since we both coached Australia and New Zealand way back.”
England’s gigantic player pool and financial backing — even if their monetary resources have been hit of late — mean they should always compete at the highest level.
Mitchell has given them a hard-nosed edge. In their semi-final with New Zealand, England kept the All Blacks pointless in the first half for the first time since 1991.
The men in white tackled relentlessly and shut out the best side on the planet, led by young but tireless workhorse flankers Tom Curry and Sam Underhill.
A repeat of their New Zealand display should be enough for them to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.
Mitchell’s past experiences in South African rugby should help England for Saturday’s final. Jones, too, worked with the Springboks as a consultant when they won the 2007 tournament.
“South Africa have areal desire to be direct,” said Mitchell. “They’re a side that’s been built over two years with Rassie Erasmus and I think you saw their intent in that first series against England in 2018.
“They’re playing to their strengths and Rassie hasbuilt a team that’s got depth as well.
You can’t defend for the whole game. South Africa have got running threats, kicking threats, and huge carry threats and in that Test the other night they went to their scrum and line-out when it mattered.
“You’ve got to be aware and ready for anything that’s chucked at you.”
In their narrow 19-16 semi-final win over Wales, South Africa reverted to their power game and used their giant pack to strangle the life out of their opposition.
Half backs Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard guided them around the park and Warren Gatland’s men ultimately did not have an answer.
While in South Africa coaching the Lions’ Currie Cup side, Mitchell was stabbed twice at his home during an attempted robbery. He was hospitalised, but quickly returned to his duties with the team.
This is a hard man and any team he has coached — currently England — are made in his image.
“There is a lot of McCaw and Pocock in them, but they’re quicker,” said Mitchell of England’s young back-row pairing of Curry and Underhill, who have had deserved headlines for their displays in Japan.
South Africa’s giant pack and Erasmus’ favouring of a six and two split between replacement forwards and backs means they are refusing to move away from their forward strengths. Why would you?
“When I have watched the Springboks I think they are the one side that can create pressure like no other,” said Mitchell.
“But what is great is that there is now another team that can create that pressure — us. Springbok rugby is very forward dominated and they love their scrum, love their line-out drive, and love the physical nature of the game.”