Gut instinct persuaded John Mitchell that the USA head coach job was the one for him after two years in rugby’s back waters.

For the former All Blacks coach it represents a return to high-profile coaching after a spell as director of rugby at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and CEO to a South African packaging manufacturer.

“My wife says she has always seen the candle (for coaching at the top) still burning. I guess for me it was a case of if I did go again that I went to the right place," the 51-year-old told World Rugby TV.

“When I signed the contract and finally made my decision to commit, it felt good in my stomach. There were no doubts. I am working with Nigel (Melville) again which is important to me, it is important as head coach to know you have stability above you.

“I have always been reluctant to coach a tier two nation but the USA is huge, and I think it is important to rugby globally for it to grow.

“A professional national rugby competition is starting up and the sevens set-up is a great example of professionalism, so for me there is a lot of upsides to working with the USA.”

Signing a four-year deal, Mitchell has been tasked with turning the Eagles into a global force in time for the next Rugby World Cup in 2019.

“I can’t rush into it, because I don’t know a lot of information and I don’t know all the people that I am working with.

“I’m trying to understand America geographically to find out where the elite playing population comes from, how they work with the overseas clubs and how the universities work.

“So I am going to have to do a lot of watching, a lot of observing and ask a lot of questions.”

Moving on

"The sad thing is that I needed another All Black coach to go through a worse experience than me to enable me to move on."

USA head coach John Mitchell

Questions were asked of Mitchell himself when his All Blacks side failed to bring the Webb Ellis Cup back to New Zealand in 2003. Ultimately he lost his job – and his sense of perspective – after they bowed out at the semi-final stage following defeat to Australia.

“I was bloody harsh on myself for four years, I think I am more mellow now," the former Waikato back-row admitted.

“It’s only when I went to the 2007 World Cup with six mates that I let go.

“I remember being in this Japanese restaurant in Nice, after we’d returned from watching England beat Australia in the sun in Marseilles, and as soon as the final whistle went in the game between the All Blacks and France, I started to get all these texts from friends in the past saying it’s happened to someone else (being knocked out of a World Cup).

“The sad thing is that I needed another All Black coach to go through a worse experience than me to enable me to move on.

“I had my life in the wrong perspective in many ways, and at that point I thought I can’t be relying just on rugby and on wins and losses to be a better person or a poorer person.”

English experience

Before he’d even reached 40 years of age, Mitchell had coached England, as an assistant to Sir Clive Woodward, and the All Blacks at a Rugby World Cup. With so much crammed into a short space of time, it’s hardly surprising Mitchell failed to always see the bigger picture.

“When you are national coach for the All Blacks, I don’t think anything ever prepares you for it, you have to be in it to understand it. I’d like to think I’d be a lot more thoughtful in my application if I ever got another chance.

“I think I learnt most of coaching in the English environment. To do 40-50 games a season as player-coach of Sale when professional rugby was first starting out and to then go on and coach England was a huge learning curve.

“At my age I should never have been an international coach. I went from playing against the likes of Martin Johnson at Leicester to coaching him with England in the space of a few months, it was kind of strange. That apprenticeship was huge for me.

“Going back to New Zealand things accelerated quickly, I took a young Chiefs side and then I got the All Blacks position when Wayne Smith departed.

“In that time I built certain beliefs in how I’d like to play the game. I think my teams always try and play an attractive style of football and they are resilient as well.

“I think the one thing I’ve probably learnt more than anything else is how you communicate to the individual. It’s not so much what you say or how you say it, it is how it is received. At times I have been misinterpreted or misunderstood and, from time to time, I’ve probably been too honest. I think I’ve found a way to communicate more effectively going forward.”

First love

Now Mitchell can’t wait to get properly stuck into his next rugby project.

“Selling a machine to a customer and seeing the balance sheet looking good doesn’t excite me, it doesn’t pump the tyres. No disrespect to engineers, they are good blokes and they do a great job but they’re different to a sportsman or a rugby man so, here I am, back here doing what I love doing.

“When you see individuals improve and the team becomes connected, there is nothing quite like that in the world. I guess that’s the art of coaching and, as a coach, that’s what I seek.

“It takes a lot of hard work to get to that point, and it can go quickly, but that’s where I need to get the USA team to.

“It’s an exciting challenge and one that makes you wake up in the morning and say, let’s go for it.”