The England team is by no means settled ahead of next year’s Six Nations and Rugby World Cup, and you can bet that head coach Eddie Jones will be using the former to test things out ahead of the latter, just as he did back in 2019.
One position that I think there are still a lot of questions over is scrum-half, with so many players in that position competing for a place on the plane to France, including Leicester Tigers duo Ben Youngs and Jack van Poortvliet, Northampton Saints’ Alex Mitchell, Bristol Bears’ Harry Randall, Wasps’ Dan Robson and potentially even Harlequins’ Danny Care, who will be in Jones’ mind somewhere as he considers his options.
All five of those players have a good chance of going to the World Cup, but one that I think has to be there is Mitchell, because he is for me the most well-rounded of them all. He has been called up to the latest England training squad, alongside Youngs and van Poortvliet, and I think this is now his chance to show what he can bring to the international table. For me, when he is at his best, he is simply unstoppable.
There are a number of reasons why I rate Mitchell so highly.
Firstly, his athleticism. He has a slight body shape which means that he is nimble around the pitch and can change direction very quickly. He also doesn’t take long to reach top speed when moving forwards, which is one reason that opponents have found it hard to stop him, with 18 clean breaks last season in total – the most of any scrum-half in the division.
Secondly, his awareness, because he always knows what is going on around the pitch. When you watch him, you always get the feeling that he knows where each of his teammates is and which of them is the best option to pass the ball to, and that is one reason that Northampton have come to rely on him so much to control the tempo of their quick style of rugby, which has caused opponents so many problems.
However, the quality that I think really makes him stand out is his distribution when he does get the ball. Northampton have been rapidly improving over the last couple of seasons and have arguably become one of the most dangerous teams in the league, and that is largely down to Mitchell because he is the one who starts most of their attacks.
Last season, he made 1373 passes in total, which was the third-highest return of anyone in the league, as well as 14 try assists, and those two statistics show how involved he is not just from the back of rucks and scrums but also in open play. In the recent match with London Irish, he was instrumental in their win against a team who have gone under the radar this season, with his ability to pass across different distances and constantly find spaces around the field.
The other reason that I think he should be on that plane is because he simultaneously offers a direct threat. In this, I mean that he is just as capable of dummying a pass and making his own way past opponent as he is at passing around the pitch and giving his teammates opportunities to break through opponents.
Last season, he was the highest-scoring scrum-half in the top flight, getting over the try line on 11 occasions – five more than the next highest-scoring scrum-half, which was Care. He also made 18 clean breaks, which was once again the highest number of any scrum-half in the division in 2021/2022, whilst he averaged 7.56m with each of his carries. This season, he has already grabbed two tries, and there is no doubting that that number will increase as the season progresses.
He is also creative, with an ability to kick as well as pass with his hands, but what really makes him stand out is that he is often the one who chases his own kicks down. In other teams, we have seen players make grubbers and then leave the ball for teammates to get on the end of, but Mitchell again wants to be involved and wants to be the one to make things happen. His work ethic and the threat he carries cannot be underestimated, and it has been essential to the Saints’ performances week in, week out.
Comparisons with the other scrum-halves
Now that we have a good picture of what Mitchell would bring to the squad if included, let’s make some brief comparisons between him and his competition.
Firstly, what he has over both Youngs and Care, who are both still outstanding and influential players, is age. Realistically, both of those two players are nearing the end of their careers, with Youngs now 33 and Care 35. Therefore, England need to be looking at long-term replacements for them, developing them to take over when they decide to move on (although Care may not be selected again anyway). Meanwhile, Robson, like Care, is seemingly out of the picture at the moment.
That brings us on to van Poortvliet, who is at the other end of the age scale and is still developing as a club and international player. He is getting opportunities to make his mark on the England squad by being called up to training squads like this one and featuring in the odd international here and there, but I think most would agree that next year’s World Cup might (and I stress “might”) come just too soon for him. However, there is no doubting that he is a talented player and definitely a star of the future.
Mitchell, at 25, is in the middle of the scale, both in terms of age and experience. Having played rugby at a high level for a number of years, he knows how to control games and make things happen, and his aforementioned qualities show that he has progressed well during his career. However, he also still has room to grow and develop, which is what excites Northampton and England fans, and having him as part of next year’s squad could be what he needs to really show what he can do.
In terms of quality, the player most like Mitchell is Randall, who is 24 so around the same age range and also likes to make sniping runs and take matter into his own hands. The Bristol player has already established himself in Jones’ thoughts, with some outstanding performances over the last year, but he doesn’t necessarily make the same kicks as Mitchell does, and instead prefers to have the ball in his hands and run with it. That is an excellent quality to have in the squad, but I still think that Mitchell’s ability to bring just a bit more to the table makes him slightly more well-rounded.
If it were down to me, I would take Youngs, Randall and Mitchell to France next year, because that provides a good mix of experience, pace, ball distribution and awareness. However, Mitchell is the one that I feel has to be included.