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The training ground attitude change that fired up Alex Mitchell

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Dan Mullan/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

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It was quite the November for Northampton and their England contingent. It was September, just before the start of the 2021/22 Gallagher Premiership season, when club boss Chris Boyd bemoaned how players such as George Furbank and Alex Mitchell had a Test level taste with England but hadn’t pushed on, a shortcoming he was intent on rectifying. 

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What unfolded on the first Saturday of last month was vindication for his intent to make things better. There was Courtney Lawes, an eleventh-hour appointment as the England skipper versus Tonga, leading a team that had no qualms in selecting Furbank as an emergency No10 while Mitchell, the scrum-half omitted from the squad originally chosen for the series, leapt into the action from the bench to make a try-scoring debut.  

For sure it was a step in the right direction for a club where Lewis Ludlam and Piers Francis have some England caps under Eddie Jones without ensuring they are regular picks, where Paul Hill was left waiting four years in between games until this past summer, while Ollie Sleightholme, Fraser Dingwall and Dave Ribbans have all made training squads without getting capped. 

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Ex-All Blacks prop John Afoa guests on the latest RugbyPass Offload
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Ex-All Blacks prop John Afoa guests on the latest RugbyPass Offload

Tommy Freeman became another name to add to that mix in November, looking on uncapped as part of the latest England squad, but Mitchell has shown him it is possible to take that next step and it will be intriguing what might now transpire for the Saints in the lead-up to Six Nations squad selection in late January.  

For the 24-year-old Mitchell, his debut England cap was a just reward for him playing the patience game after Raffi Quirke and Harry Randall had jumped ahead of him in the pecking order behind the first-choice Ben Youngs. Both Quirke and Randall ultimately pulled up lame, paving the way for an emergency call to the Northampton half-back who demonstrated he was ready for the big stage. 

Previously, he would have been the sort of character who would have allowed errors and setbacks to eat away at him but Mitchell is now made of stronger stuff as seen by the way he bounced back from his initial squad omission and then overcame the disappointment of having a try ruled out by scoring a legitimate five-pointer just minutes later. Asked by RugbyPass what had changed in his approach, Mitchell explained: “Just little things like when you are playing at a sold-out Twickenham or a packed out Franklin’s Gardens, taking it in, being in the moment. If I have made a mistake, in my head I don’t want to be thinking about it too much. I just flush it. 

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“You are playing rugby for a living, you are getting paid to do it, you are playing in front of your family, your friends on TV and everyone is so proud of you. I am just enjoying it. Not everyone has this opportunity to be in this situation, so it’s just to be proud of it and enjoy it.

“Maybe previously I’d be thinking of that (disallowed try) too much or mistakes that have happened but I know now just to enjoy the moment and have a next-ball mentality. That try was probably a good example of that and I got my rewards later in the game,” he said going to reflect on his England status as a fringe player who wants to enjoy more of the action.  

“It can be frustrating being in and out of the England squad. In previous years I have been slow to come back to Saints and get back to my form. It’s a huge honour to get selected but I know for Saints I have got to perform well and that will give me the opportunity to perform on the international stage. I try not to focus on that too much and it will sort itself out. 

“You are going to get negative feedback or get dropped from squads so it is just how you respond from that. That is probably another good example of how I am getting better at doing it. Eddie would have rung me and said a few little things as to why I didn’t get selected.”

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What has helped immensely is the improved vibe that exists at Northampton. They finished well off the playoff pace last season in the Premiership while Europe was also a foray best forgotten. However, ahead of this Friday’s visit of Racing at the start of a new Champions Cup campaign, Saints are flying in the league with six wins from nine outings good enough for third place behind leaders Leicester and Saracens. 

“In training, we have got a lot better,” explained new England cap Mitchell about the improvement at Franklin’s Gardens, something that this week resulted in him getting chosen as the Premiership’s player of the month for November. “Sometimes we went through the motions in training but now we train with a lot more purpose, we do a lot more scenario basis – if we are in this situation what do we do and we try to win everything, whether that is an individual in little games or as a team 15 versus the non 23, we try and win every little thing on and off the pitch and that creates a winning habit. That is one thing we have had to work hard on. 

“Last year a lot of people spoke about our team being young and the potential of the squad, which was a bit frustrating at times. This year we have less been about potential and people actually putting their hand up and we have been performing a lot better and the young boys coming through have been putting their hands up as well.

“We have enjoyed that challenge and the feel around the squad at the moment is more of a winning mentality. Last year we were just happy to put on the odd good performance but we now know it has got to be consistent and we have got to perform well to play against these top sides because every week is a big week. Whether that is Premiership or Europe, you are always going to play a top side so we know now winning is a mentality and we hopefully can get some results on the pitch from that.”

Having revelled in what he reflects was an awesome day with England, the trick now is to get back in there. “I’m hugely excited. I know across the board now there is a lot of talented scrum-halves, a lot of competition, but competition is a good thing so I know everyone is pushing each other.

“For me, it is just exciting to play against these top scrum-halves and put my hand up and show how I am and how I can push these boys and be better than them. It is one thing I look forward to every week and every week is a big week. It’s hugely exciting to hope to get another shot.”

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