John Mitchell has just about seen and experienced it all as rugby's most well-travelled club, provincial and international coach. This week, the All Blacks' 2003 World Cup boss faced reports that his Lions organisation in Johannesburg was worse than broke with its future in doubt. But when the Herald called with a few questions, we found Mitchell in a buoyant mood before his second season in charge of the Lions, his third Super team in as many countries.
What is the state of play at the Lions?
It's great being back in a rugby community and we are slowly making progress ... we won the Currie Cup for the first time in 12 years and the first time at home in 61 years. There were significant improvements and this is a young group. There was a toxic, negative environment that five coaches couldn't alter. People become conditioned by that. We have retrenched 35 players ...
Does retrenched mean sacked?
Yes ... there was a culture of volume here, not high performance ...
Reports this week claimed the Lions were insolvent ... how does this impact on you?
The reports are not correct ... an equity partner did not fulfil obligations but we have a new financial model.
Do you like the Super 15 conference system introduced to the competition last year?
I still believe it is best if every team plays every other team to find the true champion but I guess this way gives more of a Currie Cup flavour ...
What is the state of South African rugby and any thoughts on the new Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer, who reportedly wants franchises to play a style in line with his test plans?
The player talent pool in this country is phenomenal but South Africa has not been strong in educating coaches. Once they focus on specific conditioning ... You are going to see a much fitter Springboks team with stronger leadership and a thoughtful coach. South Africa can play the best pressure rugby in the world and that is what he will try to produce ... but you can't force [franchise] coaches to play a certain style and he may have been misinterpreted on that.
What about South Africa's reaction to their World Cup quarter-final exit against Australia?
South Africa was excited about New Zealand's win once they were eliminated because they don't like the Australians ... [referee] Bryce Lawrence was a huge topic and the media and country weren't adult enough in their reaction. They had enough possession to win two tests and you don't succeed by coughing up the ball on your goal line. The breakdown is a controversial issue and to blame one man for the performance was naive ... it was similar to New Zealand's emotional reaction in 1995 with the food poisoning and these things reflect how important the World Cup is to those communities.
What about the All Blacks' victory?
What I admired most was that first 20 minutes against Australia when the All Blacks were physically superb. It was such a tough campaign for all the teams ... Richie McCaw looked absolutely drained by the end. I was thrilled for Graham Henry because he fought past the tough times of 2007. I was also thrilled for the eight or nine players from our team who got there eventually through perseverance. We are such a small country and need to inspire young people and it was important to be world champions.
What do you miss about New Zealand?
My family and mates, Waikato Draught, fish and chips, the roast meals. I've been away so long though - I really look forward to away games and the chance to go home. My son Daryl returned from Perth and is in the Northern Districts cricket squad.
Do you harbour ambitions to coach the All Blacks again?
I have the ability to coach internationally again and have taken a more challenging route than others. A lot of changes take place between the ages of 37 and 47. You become more true to yourself and I haven't lost the trait of being a strong leader. I've learned to manage better and deal with encouraging the brand better, and to surround myself with outstanding people. I am still capable of improving the history of the All Blacks but I'm not a factor in the current administration's eyes. I don't agree with their policy of disregarding coaches overseas - I understand their player contract policy but there is no sense in applying it to coaches. We have a number of excellent coaches overseas so why limit the possibilities. New Zealand needs to remain ruthless about the All Blacks and not just look at people who are doing their time in New Zealand.
Is there one thing you would change in rugby?
I'd like quick taps [penalties] allowed to be taken across the width of the field rather than just on the mark. This would help disorganise defences and keep the ball in play longer. It could be great at the end of matches and increase the TV appeal.