England defence coach John Mitchell says his side can match Saturday’s World Cup final opponents South Africa for pressure, even though the Springboks will always love to have an “intimidator” in their pack, and Mitchell remembers the days when acts of sheer violence peppered their physicality.
No one in the England squad has a deeper or more intimate knowledge of the Republic than Mitchell. The New Zealander lives in Natal with his daughter, who has just finished high school, and his South African wife Julie, and his rugby recollections over half a century mingle respect with bruising pain.
“I have watched the Springboks as a kid, and played against South African teams and coached them,” said the 55-year-old in Tokyo yesterday. “And I used to look at them and think they are the one side in the world that can create pressure like no other team. But what is great about that, is there is now another team that can create that pressure – and that is us [England].”
Asked for a specific example of pressure, Mitchell, right, reached to his playing days as captain and back-rower of Waikato, and an incoming tour by the Springboks – traditionally New Zealand’s fiercest rivals – in 1994. “I got belted,” Mitchell said with a rueful smile. “It was a guy called Adrian Geldenhuys. He had octopus arms, I think. I didn’t get him back but I met him in a lift in Pretoria about a year ago – he lives in Despatch, Port Elizabeth. He got me a beauty [in 1994]. Then the final whistle went and there was Mark Andrews and myself laughing. It was the game in those days.”
Andrews went on to play at No 8 for South Africa in the 1995 World Cup final, while Mitchell never made it as a Test All Black. So his shot at the global crown was first as head coach of New Zealand – they lost to Eddie Jones’ Australia in the 2003 semi-final – and now with Jones’ England.
Geldenhuys was a 6ft 6ins enforcer who once laid out France’s mighty Abdel Benazzi with a sickening swinging arm from behind in a 1992 international.
And the present-day Boks continue to pack huge size in their forwards, with four huge second rows – two starters, two on the bench – in Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager, RG Snyman and Franco Mostert.
“They love their scrum, love their lineout drive and love the physical nature of the game,” added Mitchell. “They always seem to have an intimidator at No 4 [currently Etzebeth] and that is just their way – and it works for them.”
Mitchell is easily the closest of England’s assistants to Eddie Jones – the man he calls “our boss” – in age and experience. Among the 16 coaching jobs Mitchell has held, he worked with England under Clive Woodward from 1997 to 2000, helping nurture the eventual 2003 world champions (“all those gorillas, Lawrence [Dallaglio], and Backy [Neil Back], and Hilly [Richard Hill],” as he described them last year). He coached the Lions’ Super Rugby team in South Africa and in 2018 he was working at another of the Republic’s franchises, the Bulls, and thinking of a further three years there, when Jones offered him a job with England over the phone.
With Mitchell honing a rush defence, England have conceded just four tries in five matches at the World Cup – one each to the USA, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand.
“We leave space like any team and it’s up to the opposition to find it and go and get it,” said Mitchell.
“I’m sure they [South Africa] would have seen something they liked and that’s just the great thing about the game, defensively you can’t defend for it all.”