Just call 2011 the Year of the Kiwi! The All Blacks have just won their second World Cup title, three of four coaches in the semifinals of that tournament were New Zealanders and the Kiwi foreign legion are also top of the pops in the Currie Cup.
The All Blacks have just won their second World Cup title, three of the four coaches in the semifinals of that tournament were New Zealanders and the Kiwi foreign legion are also top of the pops in the Currie Cup.
While the South African Rugby Union are desperately scrambling to convince the country's top coaches to put their hands up - publicly at least - to take the national team over from Peter de Villiers, it is no coincidence that the two sides to compete in grand finale of South Africa's premier domestic competition are coached by foreigners.
Lions coach John Mitchell and Sharks coach John Plumtree - who ironically were born in the same town, Hawera, in the New Zealand province of Taranaki - will ensure Saturday's Final in Johannesburg will be an historic occasion.
For the first time in the 122-year history of the competition both coaches will be foreigners.
Former All Black coach Laurie Mains was the first Kiwi coach to claim a Currie Cup winner's medal, when he was in charge of a resurgent Lions team in 1999 - which beat favourites Natal (as the Sharks were known then) 32-9 in Durban 12 years ago.
It was the Lions' last Currie Cup title.
Plumtree has since surpassed his compatriot. Not only did he claim winner's medals as a player (in 1990, Natal's first Currie Cup title, and 1996), but the Kiwi has won two more as a coach (2008 and 2010).
The two New Zealanders bravely attempted to play down the significance of their involvement on Saturday.
"It has got nothing to do with us, it is two teams - the Lions versus the Sharks - and that is the way I see it," the Lions mentor, Mitchell, said when asked by this website about their respective roles.
Plumtree tried to put a humorous spin on it: "We're not good mates on Saturday, there's no love lost between us at the moment."
However, their long-standing friendly rivalry for the Hawera Cup - a small mug-like trophy - will take a backseat to the more historic and valuable golden trophy Sir Donal Currie donated to South African rugby well over a century ago.
Mitchell was full of praise for his rival.
"John Plumtree is a very good coach also and I have got much respect for him."
Although the two were born and grew up in the same town, they only got to know one another later as players and coaches
John Eric Paul Mitchell, born (23 March 1964) a year before Plumtree, started out with the Fraser-Tech club side after he moved from King Country in 1984 and was soon elected Waikato Colts captain.
He made his Waikato senior debut in 1985 and played at No.8, blindside flank and lock before he became firmly established at No.8. Mitchell was given the Waikato captaincy in 1989. In 1990, because of a broken leg, he could only play half the games. He was reappointed captain in 1991 and led magnificently from that time on until his retirement just prior to the start of the 1995 season. He captained the side a record 86 times. Overall he played 134 games for Waikato and scored 67 tries. In the off season, Mitchell played club rugby in France and Ireland.
As a pupil at New Plymouth's Francis Douglas Memorial College he made the first XV and he was a member of the New Zealand secondary schools basketball team. He represented NZ Juniors in basketball in 1982 and '83, but then decided to concentrate on rugby.
After his playing days Mitchell coached in England, including a stint as England's assistant coach. He was appointed coach of the Chiefs' Super 12 side for 2001, and on 3 October 2001 was appointed as All Black coach through to the 2003 World Cup.
The All Blacks disappointing results in the 2003 World Cup played a part in Mitchell not regaining the All Blacks coaching position when the NZRFU called for candidates for the position. Mitchell then took up the position of the Waikato NPC coach, which he held for the 2004 season, and in mid 2005 was successful in taking up the role of coach for the Australian expansion side, the Western Force, for the 2006 Super 14 competition. In March 2010, Mitchell announced that he would step down as coach of the Force once his contract expires at the end of the 2011 season.
However, he was appointed coach of the Golden Lions for the 2010 Currie Cup. Later that year he was appointed the coach of the Super Rugby side, the Lions.
John Plumtree's road to Saturday's Final is vastly different to the path travelled by Mitchell.
Plumtree, born on 16 July 1965, attended Hawera High School from 1976 to 1980.
Playing as a flank Plumtree represented Taranaki in the NPC for 40 games, starting in 1985. In 1989 he was selected to participate in trials for the All Black team.
Plumtree relocated to Durban, home of his South African wife. He started to play at Durban High School Old Boys, home to quite a number of overseas players at the time. These included Murray Mexted, Mike Teague, Chris Butcher, Martin Whitcombe and Peter Winterbottom.
In 1988 Plumtree was selected by the then Natal coach, Ian McIntosh, to play for the provincial side. From 1988 to 1997 Plumtree played 80 matches for the Durban-based Sharks, winning two Currie Cup medals (1990, 1996). During the 1990 Currie Cup Final, Plumtree was brought on as Natal's only replacement, substituting for Steve Atherton.
He briefly returned to New Zealand in 1992 to play 14 games for Hawke's Bay.
During a 1997 game for Natal against Western Province, Plumtree's companion on the reserve bench was John Smit, the just retired Springbok captain, who would make his debut that day.
In 1994 Plumtree was selected for South Africa's Sevens side, and played two tournaments in Hong Kong.
Plumtree started his coaching career as an assistant with the Crusaders Club in North Durban, helping them win three successive Natal titles and the South African club championship in 1994-95.
After retiring as a player, Plumtree coached the Swansea club in Wales for five seasons, winning the Welsh Cup (1999), the Welsh League (1998), and the Welsh-Scottish League (2001). He is credited with "discovering" Gavin Henson while he was with Swansea.
In 2001 he returned to New Zealand, briefly acting as video analyst for Mitchell, the All Black coach at the time, working in a management squad that included Robbie Deans, the New Zealander who now coaches the Australian national team. Video analysis was in its infancy, and Plumtree was frustrated by the buggy nature of the system.
Subsequently Plumtree was appointed coach for the Wellington Lions NPC team. Under his management, the Lions reached the playoffs in 2003, 2004 and 2006.
Plumtree returned to South Africa after he found that he was not to be given a New Zealand side in the Super Rugby tournament. Despite his success with Wellington, he was not appointed to guide the Wellington-based Hurricanes, as had been expected.
A spell as temporary head coach of the Sharks in 2007 was followed by a stint as assistant to Super Rugby coach Dick Muir. Plumtree and Muir had been teammates at the Sharks during their playing days. Plumtree replaced assistant coach Theo Oosthuizen.
Plumtree was appointed head coach of the Sharks in 2008. He successfully coached the Sharks to their first Currie Cup win since 1996, for which he was named the 2008 Coach of the Year. And he won his second Currie Cup title last year.
By Jan de Koning
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