John Mitchell’s Departure from US Eagles Rugby An Expected Loss

Super 14 Rd 7 - Western Force v Bulls

John Mitchell will be leaving the US Eagles following this summer series, to take over as the South African Bulls Super Rugby coach.

Reports came out yesterday that John Mitchell would become the ‘Executive of Rugby’ for the Bulls rugby franchise in South Africa. The announcement by the US Eagles concerning his departure; following their qualifying matches with Canada.

John Mitchell has been head coach of the USA Eagles since January 2016. He was hired by former USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville. shortly before that individual left USA Rugby to move back to Great Britain. In retrospect, John Mitchell’s year and a half with the Eagles national rugby team has been seven wins and five in test match losses.

Not an entirely successful reign, he had an additional two draws and one loss in ‘non test’ matches. Mitchell also brought USA their first championship of any measure since 1924, with this year’s American Rugby Championship. Under his leadership the United States team is also on their longest win streak in over 20 years.

There is no mistaking the improvement that USA rugby has experienced under the short tenure of John Mitchell. Many have been left over the past year questioning the decision making process of Mitchell. The proof though is in the Eagles improved performance during the 2017 calendar year.

John Mitchell’s Departure was an Inevitable

Following this year’s ARC success, no one has questioned John Mitchell’s influence as head coach. They have questioned his commitment to the team though.

Mitchell had been head coach of the Eagles for over a year and had still had not moved to the USA. He would fly to the USA when it was time to start camps, but still spent most of his time in South Africa. Dan Payne; USA Rugby CEO, informed Mitchell that he would be required to move to the United States full-time following this year’s ARC. It seemed like a tipping point.

For many, John Mitchell did not value his position with the Eagles enough to actually ‘invest himself’ in it 100%. Never entirely becoming an American. That decision is understandable to a degree, if you look at the man. He was the head coach of the All Blacks during their performance in the 2003 Rugby World Cup. Seemingly on-top-of-the-world, going from the greatest rugby team in the world to a mid tier-two nation can be difficult.

It would seem that John Mitchell was operating under the old adage ‘never find yourself without a job’. His decision to take the head coaching role seems more like a space filler than an actual commitment [like Mike Friday has with the Sevens team]. His refusal to move to the nation that he was representing showed that he had no plans to be in the USA for any extended period of time.

USA Eagles coach John Mitchell before the Intenational Rugby Match between the USA Eagles and the New Zealand Maori All Blacks (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

This is not too say that he necessarily did wrong by the squad, a man must follow his own path. This is to say that ‘the Eagles fan base should not be surprised by his decision’.

Where Does the US Team Look Now?

John Mitchell’s performance was a definite improvement for the United States. He showed that improvement can be made from the talent that we have. Now that he is gone, the decision will be, what type of coach should be picked next?

Some will ask, why the XV’s coach was not contracted fully until after the next Rugby World Cup 2019? That will be a common tactic by national unions, but Mitchell’s unwillingness to commit fully will be a warning to the future.

There are many different options available in types of coaches US Rugby can choose from.

Domestic Talent May Hold the Answer

Within five minutes of the announcement of Mitchell’s departure, there were many calls for an American coach to take the reins. The current USA Rugby CEO is an American, former head coach of Life University. There is domestic talent available, utilizing the effectively ‘defunct PRO Rugby group’ or possibly drawing in the head coach from one of the semi-pro clubs here is the USA.

Eugene Eloff may not be a born American, but he was already willing to take the leap with the Austin Huns and move to the USA, so he is willing to work long term for US Rugby.

The unfortunate issue could be if Americans want ‘an American-born man or woman’ to head the national team–then the options are very slim. Yes, there are talented coaches already in the United States, unfortunately almost all of them have a birth certificate from another country.

An example of a good coaching prospect in the US system (but born elsewhere) is former Ohio Aviators head coach Paule Barford. Before the beginning of last year’s one and only season within PRO Rugby, the Aviators were expected to be one of the worst teams in the conference. Challenging that, the Aviators went on to being only a breath away from winning all the inaugural PRO Rugby season.

Younger International Talent will Develop US Rugby Stocks

There are numerous coaches from around the world who would like to make the jump from club to international rugby. There are also some national coaches from lower tier-two or tier-three nations, that would like to work their way up the market. One place to look that would in-fact be familiar, might be South Africa.

With the political turmoil going on in the country, it seems more likely that a coach may be willing to take the leap away, and come to America. The only issue with this option is that a coach on the upswing will more likely jump at merely the ‘next step-up’ the ladder. Is the option only short-term, or a man who will progress this group even further?

John Mitchell Might Now Simply be a Footnote in the US Eagles Progress

The Eagles are on an upswing. The improvement is obvious to anyone who is paying attention. Once MLR comes into play, the upward trajectory will continue and the future is looking good for America.

John Mitchell decided that he would go back to South Africa to try and turn around a struggling organization. Without continuing on with his improvements, he will could be simply a footnote in USA Rugby history, instead of a headline.

“Main photo credit”