John Mitchell has revealed he turned down the chance to join the Chiefs next year in a role he believed would lead to him assuming the reins in Warren Gatland's absence.

Mitchell's former Waikato team-mate Gatland is in the process of returning home from Wales to coach the Chiefs from next season – and it turns out the pair could have again joined forces.

Gatland has been granted a sabbatical in his four-year deal with the Chiefs which will allow him to skip one Super Rugby season to lead the British and Irish Lions on their tour of South Africa in 2021.

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Such an unusual arrangement leaves the Chiefs searching for a suitable mentor capable of guiding the team through the 2021 season.

Mitchell, the former Chiefs and All Blacks head coach, accepted a two-year contract extension prior to the World Cup to stay on as England defence coach under Eddie Jones.

In doing so, Mitchell has now revealed he knocked back the chance to return to Hamilton as Chiefs assistant coach, a role he says would then have seen him step into the head coaching role in Gatland's absence.

Warren Gatland and John Mitchell, share a joke in 2007: Photo / Photo archive
Warren Gatland and John Mitchell, share a joke in 2007: Photo / Photo archive

"When I got the opportunity for the two years to stay with England there was also an opportunity to go back home, back to New Zealand, as well," Mitchell told the Herald in London as he and Jones prepare the Barbarians to meet Fiji at Twickenham this weekend.

"It was with the Chiefs. With Gats having to do the Lions as well in that sabbatical they were going to need a head coach. It was going to be more of an assistant role but moving into the head coach for that particular window.

"Emotionally it felt really good but sitting down with family and looking through it I've made the right decision at this time in my career."

England's Owen Farrell, right, talks with defence coach John Mitchell during a training session in Tokyo, Japan: Photo / AP
England's Owen Farrell, right, talks with defence coach John Mitchell during a training session in Tokyo, Japan: Photo / AP

Chiefs chief executive Michael Collins confirmed interest in luring Mitchell to Hamilton.

"I am happy to confirm I have had some conversations with Mitch re coaching," Collins said. "However the process re 2021 interim head coach has not started and is a joint process with Chiefs/NZR. Mitch is a world class defence coach and a proud Waikato man."


Mitchell joined England 14 months ago after the Rugby Football Union paid £200,000 (NZD$400,000) to buy out his contract with the Bulls. He has since split his time between Durban, where his family is based, and London.

"I spoke to both my children and just felt it was more important to stay with England and this group and Eddie. One year is not enough," Mitchell said. "For me it's important to continue this association and look to get better and make sure our team and players get better as well."

Mitchell admits he was enticed by the Chiefs offer but the 55-year-old has not ruled out the prospect of one day returning to the province he represented 134 times. He also seems content riding in the co-pilot seat.

"It is tempting but I also think I can still do it at some point in my life. That doesn't necessarily need to be a head coach – it could be supporting a younger coach that's going to need that kind of experience.

"It's a tough job head coaching these days they've got to balance a lot of balls."

Mitchell confirmed he was not among the 26 candidates New Zealand Rugby invited to apply for the All Blacks head coaching role.

"There's good enough coaches there and I've already committed to England as well. My only opportunity to think about going back was to a team and a region I know well."

Chiefs assistant coach Tabai Matson could be asked to step up in Gatland's absence but, for now, their search for a replacement in 2021 seemingly goes on.