Drew Mitchell’s knowledge of northern-hemisphere rugby could help the Wallabies to escape the Pool of Death, writes MARK CASHMAN.
Adam Ashley-Cooper always knew his great mate Drew Mitchell was going to bring something extra to the Wallabies’ World Cup squad after his time in France with three-time European Cup champions Toulon.
Mitchell’s top-end speed (which seems to be back), confidence in the air under the high ball and knowledge of the tactical habits of some of the world’s best players who have been cashing in playing in the Top 14 over the past couple of seasons, are all a given. But Ashley-Cooper always thought Mitchell’s sense of fun and ability to ‘take the piss’ – to use that uniquely Australian term – was going to be an asset in a long and testing World Cup campaign.
‘Drew’s been around the team each morning giving everyone the European double kiss, which is taking a few of the newer blokes by surprise,’ says Ashley-Cooper, who isn’t averse to ‘taking the piss’ himself. ‘They [Mitchell and Toulon teammate Matt Giteau] certainly haven’t had any trouble fitting back in. It’s as if they’d never left.’
The moment, though, that changed the course of Mitchell’s career wasn’t the stroke of the pen that changed the Wallabies’ selection criteria, which meant overseas stars like Mitchell and Giteau would be able to be welcomed back into the fold. It was at Twickenham in early May this year, playing for Toulon in the European Cup final against fierce French Top 14 rivals Clermont.
Wings who are approaching 32 generally don’t get any quicker, but they do get smarter and are often better at coping with what is thrown at them.
That’s exactly what happened with Mitchell. He hit a nice ball from his Toulon scrumhalf with an ‘unders’ line off a lineout in the 69th minute and then proceeded to swerve, step and fend his way past six Clermont defenders and score the try that pushed his side out of reach.
It was a simple play, certainly not an over-thought one, and perhaps that was what Wallabies coach Michael Cheika liked the most about it.
‘It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later that I got a message from “Cheik”, but if he had been considering me for the squad, that try may have solidified his thoughts,’ Mitchell recalls. ‘The scale of the game, a packed house at Twickenham, being a crucial time of the game – it sort of unfolded perfectly for me.’
Cheika has worked on the identity of this Wallabies team and numerous meetings on the 2014 end-of-year tour to the northern hemisphere set the style they wanted to play and what they stood for in the wake of the short but troubled Ewen McKenzie regime.
Cheika also identified that he could use some of the experience on show in France and other northern hemisphere countries.
‘I’ve played overseas. I know you come back with different experiences,’ says the coach. ‘They can pass that down on the field and in the preparation side of things, to all the other players.
‘I’m looking at trying to get as much experience into the team as possible to match up and merge with the younger players. They [Mitchell and Giteau] haven’t looked out of place. They’re class players; that’s why they’re back with us.’
Mitchell made his Test debut against the Springboks way back in 2005 and heading into the World Cup had accumulated 65 Test caps.
His recent strike rate in the jersey, though, is a stat that is just too hard to ignore – since November 2010 when he has got on the field for the Wallabies he has won every Test, bar the ones played at the graveyard that is Eden Park in Auckland.
Those 12 games have seen the Wallabies win nine times against all-comers and included in that is a win and draw against the All Blacks. So in some ways Mitchell has been something of a lucky charm for the national side.
Mitchell, however, thought his days in the gold Australian jersey were over when he headed to France at the end of 2013.
‘I honestly thought that, and had to take it into consideration when I made the decision,’ he says. ‘But to get this chance again has been quite exciting and I’m absolutely thrilled to get the call to join the team for the World Cup.
‘Cheik’s pretty big on the physical side of things in the contact areas at training and that has been hard to adjust to. In France, with our season going for so long, we don’t do much of that sort of stuff and that has been one of the biggest shocks. But I’ve been coached by Cheik before and I understand what he’s trying to do.’
Mitchell also believes the presence of a number of players with foreign experience will be beneficial to the Wallabies’ chances of negotiating their big pool games against England and Wales.
‘Matt and I have played against a lot of the English and Welsh guys in Europe and we had Leigh Halfpenny as a teammate. If we can impart some of the general mentality with which they approach the game and where their focus is during a game, it’s going to help.
‘The English do see rugby differently. They will never give opponents too many opportunities and they stick to their game plans, with territory and the set piece as their platform.
‘Just coming into the squad, I’ve quickly seen with Cheik how important it is that the Wallabies find their own identity and everyone is on the same page with the approach,’ Mitchell says. ‘Everything we do, run or kick, has to have a purpose and outcome, not just some thought of throwing the ball around and attacking from everywhere.’
Mitchell’s last World Cup in 2011 ended prematurely with a hamstring injury against Russia at Trafalgar Park in Nelson, and he declined to swap his Wallabies jersey after the game because he thought it would be his final Test. This time, he’s hoping to go out with a bang in a World Cup final.
– This article first appeared in the October 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine