John Mitchell tells CHRIS RATTUE Chris Rattue why he turned his back on a lucrative English contract to bring his family back where they belong, the Waikato.

It's 1993, a fine November day in Edinburgh, and John Mitchell is four games into his All Black career but, most importantly, captain for the first time.

The game before a 5000-strong crowd has just started and a Scotland Development player is laid out by a Mitchell tackle that is not as low as rugby's rules require.

Irish referee Gordon Black issues a warning and a penalty. Mitchell does not even retreat 10m and after a tap penalty another opponent is dealt with in the same way.


Among the All Blacks watching is Mitchell's Waikato comrade Matthew Cooper, who fears that a great day in his mate's life could turn to disaster if the referee decides Mitchell's time is up.

"We have laughed a lot about it but I feared for him then," says Cooper.

"He was that fired up. He wanted to set the standard ... to show that an All Black never steps backwards.

"It showed how much he valued the All Blacks jersey. It summed up how proud he was."

Pride is a recurrent theme for 37-year-old Mitchell, once a revered Waikato captain, who is quickly finding similar status as the Chiefs' coach. Since the Super 12 started in late February, rugby eyes have looked increasingly towards the man who is turning the once-wobbly Chiefs into a well-honed side big on the passion that seems lacking in some other teams.

The sport is now far removed from when a coach's stirring speech was a significant tactical device.

But while Mitchell spends as much, or more, time as anyone hunched over a computer, there is also a sense that he invests belief in simple, often traditional playing methods.

"I believe in working hard on core skills, over and over. It is a team game and you train as a team. It is a game of attack, defence, support. You work on those areas all the time.

"Even if you have a weakness, it is no good concentrating on that and ignoring the other areas at any time."

Mitchell is not a man to get carried away with a few good performances. He did, after all, quit as coach of English club Sale before a dissatisfied club could quit on him.

Coaching is a fickle game - just ask John Hart - but many already see Mitchell as an All Blacks coach in waiting.

For someone so passionate about rugby, it is a surprise to find he almost calls basketball his first sporting love. Mitchell and younger brother Paul, a hooker in the Chiefs, were the sons of basketball-playing parents Eric and Pauline.

The brothers spent their early years in Hawera before their father, a wool buyer, moved the family to Te Kuiti.

"I played a bit of rugby as a kid but I was more interested in the mud," says Mitchell.

He boarded at Francis Douglas Memorial College in New Plymouth, where he played mainly basketball - seventh-former John and third-former Paul played in a national finals series.

Mitchell made the 1982/83 New Zealand junior side coached by Keith Mair and including future national captain Glen Denham. He discovered rugby as a serious pursuit in the seventh form.

Boarding school was not, in Mitchell's words, "for the faint-hearted." And as his schooling ended, his parents were separating, a devastating experience for a teenager.

"It hurt me deeply and had an even greater effect on my brother. But from the age of 12, I felt you just had to get on with life. It might be where I get my independence," he says.

In Mitchell's case, the boarding school of hard knocks and family trauma seem to have helped evolve a character of "organisation, discipline, leadership," as his All Blacks coach Laurie Mains described it this week.

It is easy to believe Mitchell when he says money is not a big motivation.

He turned down a four-year contract of about $500,000 clear a season to stay on as England's assistant coach, to become Waikato rugby's development boss and B team coach. He and his wife Kay wanted their children, Daryl, 9, and Ciara, 6, to have a New Zealand upbringing.

"I don't think I could have lived with myself knowing my children had not been brought up in New Zealand," he says. So Mitchell returned last year to where rugby began for him.

Playing at No 8, Mitchell was one of the great captains in the domestic game, and 1993 was his year of years.

Waikato ended Auckland's glorious Ranfurly Shield reign and at 29, with no previous national rugby honours, Mitchell became an All Black to England and Scotland.

Although none of his six games were tests, All Black status gave him added confidence and "helped open some doors."

After playing and coaching at his Fraser Tech club, Mitchell reckoned his receding hairline helped him to qualify for a Classic All Blacks side which played in Bermuda in late 1995.

There he met Welshman Paul Turner, who coached Sale. One thing led to another and Mitchell, who had been a technical adviser to Ireland's New Zealand coach Murray Kidd, arrived at the club to find Turner had departed and he was in charge. He later coached at Wasps.

Mitchell, who had been in project management, was set on a rugby coaching career. This took on a new dimension when he was appointed forwards/assistant England coach in 1997, even before his new boss, Clive Woodward, had taken charge of the national side.

English rugby heavyweight Fran Cotton, a former Sale player, had a hand in that appointment, although Woodward showed some signs of being uncomfortable with a foreigner in such high places. But it was an appointment English rugby did not regret. It also brought Mitchell into the extremes of professionalism - Woodward had 17 support staff.

But a man who often speaks of the loyalty he feels to Waikato and New Zealand felt the call of home. Even if he did not know it, few doubted that Waikato believed he was the man for the Chiefs.

With franchises rather than the national union now having the power of appointment, Mitchell was installed after Ross Cooper departed last year.

Mitchell lists American basketball's Pat Riley and Phil Jackson, his former Waikato coach Kevin Greene (now Chiefs assistant), Woodward, rugby league's Steve Folkes and Wayne Bennett, Mains, Mair and even Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson as coaching influences.

On his own style, he says: "I'm a belly-to-belly person. I always asked tough questions of myself and I'm not afraid to ask them of other people."

Fitness is a major Mitchell platform - he nicknames his trainer Johnny Gillet "Killer." He is highly organised - the day before each match, planning begins for the next. There is also a simplicity to the Chiefs' game plan that relies on specialist rather than utility players.

But there is also no doubt that apart from coaching theories, the personalities of Bennett, Ferguson and co are enormous factors in their success.

Perhaps the key to Mitchell is that he commands respect. Finding a bad word about him is like locating a corporate box at old Rugby Park where he made his name.