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FEATURE Alex Mitchell: Saints 'are in a very good place at the moment'

Alex Mitchell: Saints 'are in a very good place at the moment'
2 months ago

Northampton have one invaluable reference point as they attempt to take down Leinster in their own Dublin backyard in Saturday’s Champions Cup semi-final.

England’s breathless victory over Ireland at Twickenham in March hard-wired into their Saints contingent that Irish rugby players, exceptional though their current crop may be, are not invincible.

What Northampton have to hold onto is that, given the huge crossover in personnel, what goes for Ireland also goes for Leinster.

It will be a leap of faith for some in the Saints squad but for Alex Mitchell, George Furbank and Tommy Freeman, who were all part of the England backline, one of the most testing assignments European club rugby can offer is rendered a little less daunting by the Six Nations experience.

Alex Mitchell
Mitchell and Tommy Freeman (right) were two of the Saints players who enjoyed a memorable Six Nations win over Ireland (Photo Dan Mullan – RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

“Maybe it helps a tiny bit,” said Mitchell. “I think we will have the confidence that if we go over and perform well as a team, we have a good opportunity to get a result there.

“We know it is going to be a tough place to go. We know they are one of the best sides in Europe – no doubt about that – but having little experiences like that which you can recall will be useful.”

Belief is half the battle as Northampton try to reach their first Champions Cup final since 2011, when they lost to Leinster in Cardiff.  By virtue of being at the sharp end in Europe every season Leinster have oodles of it; Saints may have to manufacture it as best they can.

In a parallel rugby universe Mitchell might have ended up playing in – and maybe even for – Ireland given his maternal grandmother hailed from Enniskillen in County Fermanagh. The IRFU had the Saints scrum-half on their radar but it wasn’t for him.

Mirroring his own quantum leap in being overlooked for the initial England World Cup squad to becoming Steve Borthwick’s undisputed first-choice scrum-half, Saints have grown wings.  An incredible double is only a handful of games away…

“My brother and I are Irish-qualified and he (James) had a little stint at Connacht. He enjoyed the lifestyle out there but I never really looked to go down that route,” said Mitchell.

“I was always lucky enough to be involved throughout the England age-group stuff and in and around England. Besides, I’m Northampton through and through.”

Mitchell, who went to school in Lymm, in Cheshire, came through the Sale academy before joining Northampton in 2015 where he is now part of the furniture.

At times it has been a labour of love. Although the Saints won the Premiership Rugby Cup in 2019, they have been mid-rankers for the most part during his time there.

This season though – mirroring his own quantum leap in being overlooked for the initial England World Cup squad to becoming Steve Borthwick’s undisputed first-choice scrum-half – Saints have grown wings.  An incredible double is only a handful of games away for the Gallagher Premiership leaders.

Alex Mitchell
Mitchell has played a key role in Saints beating Munster and Bulls in the Champions Cup knockout stages (Photo Andrew Kearns – CameraSport via Getty Images)

So what has changed at the Gardens?

“We had a really good pre-season,” said Mitchell. “We changed it up a bit and tried to get in the gym a lot more to build our physicality. It wasn’t so much me, more the forwards and some of the outside backs.

“Then there is our greater experience. We’ve had a young squad in the last couple of years but with a lot of guys pushing on to 50 and 100 caps with Northampton and how many of them were in and around the England squad, everyone has kicked on and it has come to fruition a little bit.

I love the way we play at Northampton. To play in a side like this, surrounded by quality players, you are going to enjoy yourself. I’m very lucky.

“We’ve managed to find ourselves in a European semi-final and pushing for the top four or top two even in the Premiership.

“It has been an awesome season and hopefully we can finish it on a high.”

The improvement in Saints’ defence has been a part of their growth but it is still the blistering attack which draws the eye. They are averaging almost five tries a game in all competitions across the course of the season with their fizz-bang rugby.

“It’s awesome to play,” said Mitchell. “It’s exciting. It gets the crowd on their feet. We score tries. This year we have added defence onto that, but I love the way we play at Northampton. To play in a side like this, surrounded by quality players, you are going to enjoy yourself. I’m very lucky.”

Courtney Lawes and Lewis Ludlam
The imminent departures of Courtney Lawes and Lewis Ludlam give Saints extra motivation against Leinster (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

If he is counting his blessings, the Saints are thankful too to have their quicksilver scrum-half on board. He is the one that sets the beat to their rhythmic rugby.

His influence grows with each passing week, it appears.

“Playing in a World Cup and a Six Nations, knowing you can perform with some of the best, obviously gives you confidence. I’ve tried to bring some parts of that back to Saints,” he said.

“I just try to lead with my actions and get Saints to tick. I try to lead how we run training because how we train leads to performance on the pitch but we have so many boys that bring the standards now.”

Two of the Saints’ leaders – Courtney Lawes and Lewis Ludlam – will say farewell at the end of the season and depart for France. Part of the Northampton mission is to send them off with a winners’ medal around their necks. It is what is helping to drive them to the finish line.

I think we’re in a very good place at the moment. We obviously have to get a few things right and turn up on the day, but we are very confident

“There’s always little things to get you excited for games and we want to give them a good send-off,” said Mitchell.

“To get some silverware in either competition would be a massive thing; to make them proud of why they were here and give them some experiences to remember when they move on.

“It’s definitely one thing that we are getting emotional about.”

Of course it could all end in tears. They could still finish a dream season empty-handed which would surely feel like failure having come so far.

“I wouldn’t call it a failure. It would be disappointing – it’s disappointing any season when you don’t get silverware – but we’ve had an outstanding season,” said Mitchell.

“At the start of it we just wanted to enjoy it and go on adventures and make some memories. I think we’ve done that so far and hopefully there are some more in the run-in.

“I think we’re in a very good place at the moment. We obviously have to get a few things right and turn up on the day, but we are very confident.”

Saturday offers a re-match with Jamison Gibson-Park, his opposite number at Twickenham and a player who has made the European knockout stages his own this season.

Jamison Gibson-Park
Gibson-Park has been in outstanding form for Leinster in their run to the Champions Cup semi-finals (Photo Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

A hat-trick against Leicester in the round of 16 was followed by another try and superb performance in the quarter-final against La Rochelle.

It is a high-end head to head but to Mitchell it feels like business as usual.

“Every game I seem to play, I come up against a top scrum-half,” said Mitchell. “JVP (Jack van Poortvliet) one week, Danny Care the next and then Jamison Gibson-Park. Every week it’s a battle at nine…”

There are match-ups like that all over the pitch for what could be a classic if the Saints bring their full bag of tricks.

A sold-out Croke Park, the semi-final venue three miles from Leinster’s RDS home, will be a fitting – if partisan – stage.

“I wouldn’t quite call it a neutral ground but from what I hear it’s got an amazing atmosphere,” added Mitchell. “I can’t wait. It’s going to be an awesome one.”

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