Find out more about England scrum-half Alex Mitchell
Perfection isn’t really something top athletes ever actually want to catch, if you discuss it with them. Not anywhere other than a history-making final, anyway. As Northampton Saints and England nine Alex Mitchell puts it, “You always chase a perfect game but you’ll never actually get to it.
“There will always be some game where there’s a slight mistake, a slight improvement needed, a loss or whatever it is. I think if you have the perfect game, when you get there you’re not really in the right place. You always want to try and get better, to improve. As athletes we have always got that mindset.”
There’s a line of dialogue in the Dark Knight movie where the Joker explains excitedly, “I’m like a dog chasing cars – I wouldn’t know what to do if I caught one.” Is it a bit like that?
“Exactly,” Mitchell replies. “Do you really want to get to that end goal? It’s just like, you’re gonna keep chasing. And it’s still good to have a goal. Even if you get to your goal then you’ll have another one in a year or two, whether that’s another performance you want or whatnot. The goalposts are always moving in that sense, to have something to chase after.”
We don’t mind another sporting analogy in there and in truth it’s discussing some other sports that offers an insight into Mitchell’s more happy-go-lucky side. For example, in talking about England’s World Cup base in Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, the varied sporting endeavours covered are the gateway to inter-squad relationships. Specifically, Padel is the key.
The largely-doubles sport is similar to tennis in terms of markings and scoring, but it’s in an enclosed space, where you can play the ball off the walls. And in France, Mitchell struck up regular matches involving Max Malins, Danny Care and Jamie George, while former Saints team-mate Dave Ribbans was another figure.
In fact, it turns out the 6ft 8in lock has what some might describe in sporting parlance as good feet for a big man. “He can move,” Mitchell tells us. “He’s got good coordination. But I still back myself on the court. So I would just try to move him around the court, get him moving backwards and forwards and try to get inside his head. He always gets very frustrated. And then he tries to fix everything with aggression!
“I’d try to get into his head and he’d just try to smash it and end up smashing it into the net or the backboard. But to be fair, he was actually very good, which was tough to see. No offence to the forwards but they’re never too great with stuff like that. But he was very good.”
Every team will have had a football out in training at some point, forwards v backs or oldies v the kids; bibs on or, in the summer, shirts v skins. The scrum-half jokes that whenever a discussion of a Saints XI comes up, an array of forwards put their hands up saying they could crack the football team. But Mitchell assures us, “They’re not going to get anywhere near it.”
He does concede that he would be the bloke talking about trials in his youth – there’s always one. He was a keen footballer as a teenager. In his side he’d have George Furbank for sure, and former player Tom Collins gets a mention, as well as Fin Smith. He’s in the XI too, he assures us.
When it comes to playing with the oval ball at Test level, it’s taken some action-packed play to get into the mix. And he’s not always been nailed on for squads, not even after his national breakthrough.
Having played in the 2023 Six Nations, he went through the pre-World Cup camps with England and then was dropped when it came time to name a squad for the French adventure.
Then an injury to Leicester’s Jack van Poortvliet catapulted him right back in and he ended up started the opening match of the tournament against Argentina. In fact, he started every match bar two out in France, as England went on a run all the way to the semi-finals, losing
by just a point to South Africa.
They say life comes at you fast but this must have felt more like you being fired out of a cannon at life, rather than the other way around.
Alex Mitchell on securing his England place
“It had been a bit of a roller coaster for me,” Alex Mitchell admits. “I was involved with the Six Nations and then had a stint with Saints at the end of the season and we had the pre-World Cup camps; then I was dropped from that and it was weird because you’re in, you’re out.
“But the coaches were very positive with me. They always gave me a lot of confidence. They always said, ‘Look, selection is very close. We’ve got a long run into the World Cup, so any injury niggles for the others, you’re next man in,’ and so I knew that I just had to keep my fitness on top form, my game on top form. And if I got a chance I would be put into the mix and I could try to put my hand up (for selection).
“So it was frustrating getting dropped but you then get selected again. It was tough for Jack but it was such a great opportunity for me. And then I could put my hand up and try to perform in training and then in the end I got a shot to start a few games, which I really enjoyed.
“I loved it, loved the whole experience. It’s a dream from when you’re a kid, isn’t it, playing the World Cup. I remember watching the World Cup in 2003 and 2007, and looking at the kit – I used to love all the England tops and the World Cup tops! So to be involved in a camp was one thing. Then playing and starting in such massive games was a massive dream and to have my family fly out to most of the games was huge for me. The whole experience was obviously high pressure, high performance. But I enjoyed that part of it.”
Ask Alex Mitchell about going forward into 2024 and the new Test season and he accepts it’s a cliché, but it’s all about what’s next up and nothing beyond. Saints are going pretty well and he’s enjoying the ride there. He also describes his approach to life on the grass as a relaxed one – he’s focused and competitive out there, sure, but he’s at his best when he’s not wound up. He wants control. He wants to be ‘in the moment’ as much as possible.
The process for him is quite simple. Say there’s a big East Midlands derby and a whole alphabet of Leicester Tigers players are snarling at him. Up in the stands the noise is building up. Mitchell likes to appreciate the crowd and in his words “enjoy the stadium”. He’s actively trying not to be in his own head too much. He’ll focus on play by play, without thinking too much about what’s to come later in the game.
Asked if that’s something he’s had to learn to do after some big-match run-ins and he says: “There’s probably a few, it’s hard to think back to exact games. But there’s probably a few where I’ve been too overhyped and too aggressive and not had a clear head. When I’d try to maybe overplay or do too much or try to fly out the line and make a difference. Sometimes that’s not always the best thing to do. It’s just about having a clear head and doing the right thing at the right time. There will be times I’ve done that and probably will do again. It’s just about controlling that and trying to minimise it.”
It’s probably why he won’t overthink the difference in styles between Saints and the England team. Much has been made of how his box-kicking game has had to fit into international demands, and he is a savvy operator – he can talk to you about how some nines like to have their pinky under the ball as they prepare to box-kick, or whether your chest should be up at certain points as you move from picking the ball off the deck and thumping it with your foot.
But there’s the chase again. He’ll keep plugging away because that’s what we do in this game. There’s no case of finding kicking nirvana one afternoon and then heading straight home for tea.
On the future of the game and tweaks that could come, he’s happy to entertain some concepts but laughs that “I’m not really the brains of the operation” and so wouldn’t throw out any new twists himself. He just wants to “enjoy my rugby and try not to put too much pressure on it”.
Sticking with England is what interests him, and earning more caps. A summer tour would be amazing as well, he adds, with England on their travels again in July. And as for domestically, well, Mitchell is certainly fired up, talking of the desire for his Saints to drag a home semi-final back to Northampton for the league play-offs. “I really want to push,” he says of that goal.
And in no way should it feel like an end goal. It’s the starter pistol, not the tape. England has him down as playing 447 minutes in a Test jersey. He’s had seven wins but also four losses. If the turnaround for England is on, no way would anyone want to look too far ahead. Players like Alex Mitchell just want to get out there right now.
This article first appeared in the free Six Nations magazine in the February 2024 edition of Rugby World.