By DANIEL GILHOOLY
The rugby World Cup was always going to make or break John Mitchell.
Since succeeding Wayne Smith as All Blacks coach on October 3, 2001, there can be no doubt Mitchell has instituted significant changes to the All Blacks -- most of them for the better.
But such is the importance placed on World Cup tournaments in the modern era, his self-titled "journey" of the last two years will fade from the memory come late November in Sydney.
The shaven-headed former All Black will return to New Zealand either a hero or villain and he knows it. There is unlikely to be a middle ground.
Still a mysterious figure to most New Zealanders because of his reluctance to speak to the media, Mitchell's persona is a stark contrast to that of New Zealand's 1999 World Cup coach John Hart.
Hart was criticised in some quarters for devoting too much time to media relations, which may have helped generate excessive expectations.
Mitchell's reputation as a ruthless selector has been enhanced this year, with former stars like Andrew Mehrtens, Jonah Lomu, Taine Randell and Christian Cullen not making the cut.
With a reliance on statistical analysis and specific character traits, Mitchell has moulded the team he wants.
He and coaching co-ordinator Robbie Deans, with an eye on the fast ground conditions on offer in Australia, are developing a game plan based on speed of thinking and action, already seen to good effect in the 50-point thrashings of Australia and South Africa during this season's Tri-Nations.
Reuben Thorne, a man who Mitchell has backed to the hilt to captain the All Blacks despite large chunks of public disapproval early this season, repays the favour when speaking about his coach.
Thorne said the Mitchell the All Blacks knew was not the same man who confused and, at times, irritated the public with his unique 'Mitchell speak'.
"He does relate very well the guys," Thorne told NZPA.
"He communicates at a level that everyone understands and appreciates. At the same time he demands very high standards from us.
"John is very disciplined, he wants the best out of us and at the same time he provides the side with a good balance. We work when it's time to do the work but we get time off so there isn't too much rugby."
Thorne has been in hot demand during the All Blacks' pre-World Cup training camps.
Since naming his 30-man squad on August 25, Mitchell has once more pulled down the cone of silence on media duties, with his re-emergence expected only once the All Blacks land in Melbourne next Wednesday.
Halfback Justin Marshall said Mitchell should be entitled to deal with the media as he pleased.
The All Blacks veteran said the players appreciated his methods, believing Mitchell's greatest advantage was that he had played and coached in the professional era.
"Both of our coaches are fresh out of the game, Mitch even more so than Robbie," Marshall said.
"A lot of the coaches, I suppose, who have been and gone in the past are not right up with the development the game has moved on to.
"Fortunately for us, Mitch understands what the pressures are involved in playing the game at the level it is now. He's able to create the right environment for us to perform."
As a player Mitchell was the epitome of a Waikato forward: hard, uncompromising and a player who always gave 100 per cent on the field.
The Waikato team of the mid-1990s developed a reputation as having the most polished forward pack in New Zealand provincial rugby.
Mitchell's most successful year as a player came in 1993 when he captained Waikato to NPC glory and ended Auckland's record Ranfurly Shield reign.
Later that year he was the midweek captain on the All Blacks' tour to England and Scotland, playing six matches for his country but not earning a test cap.
Mitchell left New Zealand rugby to take up a player/coach role at England's Sale club, guiding them to the final of the Pilkington Cup in 1997.
At about that time England coach Clive Woodward was in search of an assistant to provide expertise in forward play who had no baggage in English rugby politics. Mitchell was his man.
The two complemented each other well although their first tour was less than memorable, when an under-strength England were thrashed by record margins in Australia and New Zealand.
By the 1999 World Cup, the England pack had emerged as among the best in the business.
Mitchell's two-year influence can still be seen today, with several members of the current English pack still loud in their praise of his work there.
Mitchell returned home in 2001 and was offered the coaching role at the struggling Chiefs Super 12 franchise, immediately helping them climb from bottom of the table to sixth in his only year in charge.
To many, one season of coaching achievement in New Zealand should not be enough to become All Blacks coach but when Smith took the unusual option of reapplying for his own position, the New Zealand Rugby Union gambled by naming Mitchell as his replacement.
Mitchell's first squad to tour Ireland and Scotland at the end of 2001 contained a number of surprises, including the axing of All Blacks regulars Randell, Cullen and Jeff Wilson.
His decision not to give former captain Randell a courtesy call before dropping him caused huge ructions. It was a pointer to the single-minded approach Mitchell has made a hallmark.
His first-choice 2002 squad were based almost exclusively around the unbeaten Crusaders Super 12 side, a selection technique that saw provincial bias bubble to the surface amongst the public.
The All Blacks won the Tri-Nations but again failed to lift the Bledisloe Cup thanks to a late Matt Burke penalty in Sydney.
Critics said the All Blacks needed more. Was there a Canterbury bias?
Did coaching co-ordinator Deans have too much input? Was this the right gameplan to win the World Cup?
Auckland's emergence in the NPC aided Mitchell's most daring selectorial move when he rested most of his Canterbury incumbents and took a young, untried squad on the 2002 end-of-year tour to England, France and Wales.
This was greeted with a mixed reaction, as were the results of the tour, including a loss to England and a draw against France.
When the Blues -- featuring several of Mitchell's surprise tourists -- won the Super 12 this year it justified his selections.
His All Blacks squad this year have featured a wider mix, although they still comprise a large contingent from Canterbury and Auckland.
Aside from the mysterious dropping of former captain Anton Oliver, Mitchell has stayed faithful to virtually the same players right through 2003.
And why not? Apart from losing the season opener to England and a stuttering win over France, New Zealand have won in style this year, defending their Tri-Nations title and reclaiming the Bledisloe Cup after five years' residence in Australia.
Mitchell has garnered a record of 17 wins, three losses and a draw from 21 tests, more than impressive for most modern coaches.
He will win four more in World Cup pool play but he knows the All Blacks will need another three to ensure his own "journey" can continue.
John Mitchell factbox
- Born in Hawera, Taranaki on March 23, 1964.
- Attended Francis Douglas Memorial College, New Plymouth
- Played for Waikato in the national basketball league and was a national junior representative in that sport
- Played 134 rugby games for Waikato during a 10-year representative career from 1985-94. Was captain 86 times, a Waikato record. Scored 67 tries, a record for Waikato forward
- Selected for the All Blacks on the 1993 tour of Scotland and England, playing six games and leading the unbeaten midweek side
- Took up professional coaching with England's Sale club in 1996, later briefly coached London Wasps
- Co-opted by coach Clive Woodward to act as assistant coach for England from 1997-2000
- Coached the Chiefs Super 12 franchise in 2001
- Was named All Blacks coach in October, 2001, succeeding Wayne Smith
- Has a record of 17 wins, three losses and one draw with the All Blacks. Has twice won the Tri-Nations series and this year reclaimed the Bledisloe Cup