Massive Super Rugby task for Mitchell at bruised Bulls

Former All Blacks coach John Mitchell, seen in 2002, came to Pretoria last year after coaching the American national team and charged with the task of restoring pride in a Super Rugby side that won only four matches during the past season

Former New Zealand All Blacks coach John Mitchell was given no Super Rugby fixture favours as he faces the herculean task of reviving fallen South African giants Northern Bulls.

The Pretoria outfit face defending champions Canterbury Crusaders, former winners Wellington Hurricanes, Queensland Reds and Waikato Chiefs and twice runners-up Golden Lions in consecutive weekends.

Starting Saturday, the three-time champions host the Hurricanes and Lions at Loftus Versfeld stadium, then cross the Indian Ocean to Australasia for the other three fixtures.

While it is not inconceivable that the Bulls could lose all five matches, Mitchell is upbeat ahead of the season opener against 2016 champions Hurricanes.

"It is cool starting against a New Zealand side as it creates greater attention to detail," the 53-year-old said ahead of his third Super Rugby coaching assignment.

"Teams like the Hurricanes pose so many attacking threats and if you do not look after the ball, they can hurt you.

"New Zealand teams have set the standard in this competition since 2014 and they just keep getting better and better.

"While Super Rugby does not come down to one match, it is important to begin your campaign well and build on that.

"My guys are nice and calm and will rip into the Hurricanes this weekend," said the former coach of the Western Force in Perth and the Golden Lions in Johannesburg.

Mitchell came to Pretoria last year after coaching the American national team and charged with the task of restoring pride in a Super Rugby side that won only four matches during the past season.

But a string of defeats in the domestic Currie Cup forced officials to dump coach Nollis Marais and elevate Mitchell sooner than planned.

The influence of the Hawera-born New Zealander quickly turned the team around and they reached the semi-finals before making a dignified exit.

It was not just the results that changed for the better -- the Bulls abandoned the traditional kick-and-chase game for a faster ball-in-hand approach.

Mitchell calls the new style "evolution", but long-time Bulls supporters would probably label it a "revolution".

After all, this is a team that won three Super Rugby titles in four seasons from 2007 using simple but incredibly effective tactics.

Springbok legends Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha lorded the lineouts and star scrum-half Fourie du Preez would kick long and accurately.

Opponents inevitably committed errors and the South Africans would pounce to win consistently.

The 61-17 destruction of the Chiefs in the 2009 final was the finest performance by a South African team in Super Rugby.

But the days of scoring 60 points have long gone for the Bulls as stars retired and less talent replacements came in, leading to dwindling crowds.

Mitchell believes he can turn the tide: "The good thing is that everyone has bought into the way we want to do things.

"They recognised the work ethic that is required and quickly realised that this is a place to learn and get better each day.

"We want to start winning consistently -- that is the bottom line now."

Mitchell became All Blacks coach in 2001 and lost his job two years later after a Rugby World Cup semi-finals loss to hosts Australia.