Drew Mitchell remembers clearly the moment he decided to hang up his boots.
It was 2017, the Top 14 regular season was wrapping up and the former Wallabies winger had battled through a season marred by injuries – but that wasn’t a major factor in his decision.
“Yes, I’d been going through a couple of injuries and things but it wasn’t so much that,” Mitchell said to RugbyPass about the future-altering call.
“I just remember sitting in a team meeting with Toulon and thinking to myself ‘I would prefer to be anywhere than where I am right now.’
“I walked out of that team meeting and I didn’t speak to my parents, my manager, my coach, the owner or anyone – just because I knew that there would be an opportunity for them to talk me out of it and I just wanted to try stick to my instincts. I drafted up a Tweet and then pressed fire.”
So it's my turn to call time on my rugby career!
I've been very lucky to have had the experiences I've had in our great game.
— Drew Mitchell (@drew_mitchell) April 17, 2017
The brief Tweet drew responses from many of Mitchell’s current and former teammates and opposition, from the likes of David Pocock to Piri Weepu.
“I really enjoyed the last three months after that – until we lost the final – and I was really happy with that decision, to be honest.”
As reported by RugbyPass in January, however, Mitchell’s retirement is now coming to an end with the Queenslander set to add a new chapter to his career.
Rugby United New York, home to former internationals Ben Foden and Mathieu Bastareaud, have managed to lure Mitchell to America for a shot at one of the game’s newest professional competitions, Major League Rugby.
It wasn’t an opportunity that Mitchell actively sought out – Jamie Kennedy, the owner of RUNY, reached out to Mitchell to gauge his interest and Mitchell found himself struggling to get the idea of a stint in the States out of his mind.
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“I tried not to look too far ahead or get my hopes up because, as is often the case with things in rugby, it doesn’t always turn out the way that you hope,” said Mitchell. “I tried to keep a bit of a lid on things but then I sat down with the coach and the owner and it started to gain a little bit of momentum.”
The proposition came at a fairly fortuitous time for Mitchell, who had picked up a number of rugby-related jobs in the three years since he called time on his playing career.
“I was really happy with the commentary work I was doing with Fox Sports and I had some other gigs on the side as well which were keeping me pretty busy and stimulated from a mental point of view.
It hasn't taken the ex-Wallaby long to secure alternative employment following last week's TV setback, and other star names could follow him to America in 2021 https://t.co/p5YF4odhqV
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 28, 2020
Unfortunately, Mitchell found himself of the wrong side of some fat-trimming with Fox which saw the 35-year-old out of full-time work as of January. Thankfully, Mitchell had been in ongoing talks with RUNY since November.
“I really enjoyed my time doing commentary, I enjoyed the team I worked with, but that’s just what happens sometimes,” said Mitchell. “It’s just like footy, you get dropped sometimes and you’ve just got to cop it and find a new opportunity.”
That new opportunity will now see Mitchell lining up against the likes of Ma’a Nonu, Digby Ioane and Tendai Mtawarira.
“At first it was the lure of living in New York and playing in a new competition which I think has a great amount of potential that I was really excited about, but also there’s a good opportunity for me to give back a little bit,” said Mitchell of his upcoming sojourn.
"Your Fodens and all these other players…They kind of disappear into the background whereas this guy absolutely does not.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 2, 2020
“I know some people might think I should be [giving back] in Australia but I think you need to give back to the game – the game needs to grow globally and I think the United States is a market that has huge potential.
“If my being there can help some of the less experienced players and improve the way they see the game and approach the game then I think it’s a great opportunity.”
Over a decade of involvement with the likes of the Reds, Western Force, Waratahs, Toulon and Wallabies should make a still-developing competition like MLR a relative walk in the park for someone like Mitchell, but the outside back isn’t quite as physically resilient as he once.
“I had a really open dialogue with Jamie Kennedy and the guys who own Rugby United,” Mitchell said.
“We both know my situation in terms of being out of it for a while but, at the same time, I’m pretty competitive – hence the reason I’ve been putting myself in a hole most days of the week to try get back to some type of fitness before I join the boys.”
“I was never the leanest winger in my career so I need to make sure I turn up in some type of shape!”
Mitchell expects to continue to line up on the wing, where he played the majority of his 71 Tests for Australia.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 27, 2020
Mathieu Bastareaud, Mitchell’s former teammate at Toulon and future teammate with Rugby United, has made the shift from the midfield to the back of the scrum in recent times but Mitchell isn’t gunning to make a similar move to the pack.
“I don’t know if I’ve hit a ruck in my career so I don’t know if that’s something the team will want me to do!”
Regardless of where he plays, isn’t counting on a surprise recall to the Wallabies where new coach Dave Rennie will have plenty of young talent at his disposal.
“There’ll be no more gold jersey for me,” confirmed Mitchell, “but I’ll be supporting the boys, that’s for sure.”
Mitchell was called up to the Wallabies for a brief second stint with the Australian national side for the 2015 World Cup after a year-long absence due to the nation’s eligibility laws.
Those laws were changed ahead of the World Cup to allow the likes of Mitchell and Matt Giteau to join the side with the new 60-cap requirement dubbed the ‘Giteau Law’.
As Mitchell has pointed out, however, had Rugby Australia solely wanted to allow Giteau to link up with the squad then a 90-cap law would have been more appropriate – one cap fewer than what the flyhalf stood on at the time.
“It’s a little bit more glamourous if you call it the Giteau Law because he’s had a pretty decorated career. I’ll let him take this one but I think we all know deep down it’s the Mitchell law,” said Mitchell in jest.
“I was on 63 caps and they made it a 60-cap law.”
And how long should we expect to see Mitchell running out in the blue and orange of Rugby United New York?
“It’ll probably be about 18 months – fitting two seasons in. I think both parties are completely aware of the fact that I’ll probably play my first game of MLR at 36. We’ve been realistic with one another and we’ll see how I go – how the body’s holding up – and if I’m actually adding value and then we’ll make a call from there.”
Now, Mitchell is just playing the waiting game; once his visa clears, he’ll be on the first flight over to New York.
“Now that I’ve 100% committed to playing and they’re three weeks into the competition already, I’m chomping at the bit to get over there and just get around the team.”
Rugby United New York are currently sitting in fourth place in Major League Rugby’s Eastern Conference after making the semi-finals in 2019.
The team have a smattering of elder statesmen in the form of Bastareaud, former English representative Ben Foden and USA halfback Mike Petri but Mitchell’s considerable experience at all levels of the game will no doubt be a huge boon for the up-and-coming rugby side.
“The game’s given me so much and your lasting memories are often your most recent,” Mitchell said. “If mine were ones where I was just doing it for a pay packet or something like that then I’d probably leave the game with not the fondest of memories.
“I never thought I would be the type that would come back and play again but the lure of New York and the opportunity to play in a new competition was enough.”
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