With the Lions tour to Australia now less than 10 months away, we’re taking a look at the Wallaby heroes we expect to play a major role against Britain and Ireland’s elite.
Over the coming season, we’ll give you the lowdown on the Aussie stars who pose the biggest threat to the Lions’ hopes of a first series victory in 16 years.
Some of the players we highlight will already be household names but others will be bolts from the blue, youngsters yet to appear on the big stage or experienced club campaigners peaking at just the right time to achieve the ultimate goal.
So far we’ve run the rule over arguably the world’s best full back in Kurtley Beale, veteran hooker Stephen Moore, young pretender Luke Jones, injured captain James Horwill and stand-in skipper David Pocock. Now we’re taking a look at Drew Mitchell’s chances of facing the Lions.
The vastly experienced wing has endured a nightmare 12 months yet all of a sudden his hopes of being handed a starting spot against the Lions look a lot more likely after he was named in Australia’s 30-man squad for the upcoming Rugby Championship.
Mitchell has played very little rugby since suffering a horrific ankle injury during the Waratahs’ Super 15 clash with the Reds in April of last year. Chasing a kick downfield, Mitchell was impeded by fellow Wallaby Scott Higginbotham, with the end result being a dislocated ankle and a fractured fibula. Mitchell’s screams could be heard far and wide in the 19th minute of just the ninth game of the season as the in-form flyer instantly realised his season was all but over.
Mitchell was almost immediately ruled out of September’s World Cup after being told he would require at least six months on the sidelines but he somehow found a way back to fitness earlier than expected. Hard work and healing bones led to him making the Wallaby party for the global gathering in New Zealand and when he scored a brace of tries against Russia in the final pool game, things were looking rosy once again. Fate drew Mitchell yet another cruel hand later on in that game, though, as he tore a hamstring in Nelson to limp out of the tournament before the knockout stages.
Further ankle problems then prevented him from featuring in the first four months of the 2012 Super Rugby campaign as the remnants of his 2011 setback refused to fully disappear. Mitchell missed 13 fixtures last term before finally returning to the Waratahs side for the clash with the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein in the last week in May. By that time the season was all but over for the Sydney-based franchise who were in the middle of an eight-game losing streak that meant Mitchell would have no chance of extending his comeback into the knockout stages.
Drew Mitchell has been struck down with ankle and hamstring injuries recently
But despite making just four appearances for the Tahs in 2012, Mitchell did enough to persuade Robbie Deans that he was worthy of a place in his large training squad before impressing even more in camp to secure a spot in the final 30. For once, lady luck may have looked kindly on the former Reds and Force star as injuries to his main rivals opened a door that may otherwise have remained locked for a little bit longer.
With Joe Tomane, Cooper Vuna and James O’Connor all unavailable through injury, Mitchell has been handed an early opportunity to reclaim the place that had become his almost by right until his ankle gave way so painfully 16 months ago.
And while his selection in the final party was one of the major talking points alongside the inclusion of 36-year-old back rower Radike Samo and young flankers Liam Gill and Jake Schatz, we shouldn’t be overly surprised given Mitchell’s past achievements on the international stage and the relative lack of depth on the Wallaby wings.
When it comes to backline stars, the Wallabies seem to possess more than their fair share, but when you look at out-and-out widemen, injury free and in form, it’s a slightly different scenario. Mitchell and Digby Ioane are the only two wings to be named in Deans’ squad, with Adam Ashley-Cooper picked primarily as a full back after starting there in place of Beale earlier in the summer.
And while the likes of Tomane and Vuna may have pushed him hard had they not suffered their own recent setbacks, Mitchell is streets ahead of the pair when it comes to experience. Tomane and Vuna could be the coming men of Wallaby rugby but Mitchell has been there, done it and got a T-shirt that they are still some way off wearing.
With 58 caps to his name, Nathan Sharpe, Stephen Moore and Ashley-Cooper are the only current squad members to have represented their country on more occasions than Mitchell and that could prove vital when it comes to selection for the series with the Lions.
Only Chris Latham has scored more than his 10 tries at World Cups, while Mitchell just needs two more scores to jump into third place in the list of Australia’s all-time top try scorers with 31.
Mitchell has regularly found his way to the tryline in Wallaby colours
He has already bagged two hat-tricks in national colours and has enjoyed a similarly impressive strike rate in Super Rugby, finishing as the competition’s top try scorer in 2010.
Whereas Tomane and Vuna can only boast 40 Super Rugby appearances between them, the final fixture of the 2012 domestic season saw Mitchell become the 25th representative of an Australian team to reach 100 Super Rugby caps, eight years after his debut for the Reds back in 2004.
Name: Drew Mitchell
Date of birth: 26/03/1984
Height: 5ft 11in
Weight: 14 stone 7lbs
Test debut: Versus South Africa in 2005
Test caps: 58 (as of 08/08/2012)
Strengths and weaknesses
Strengths: Experience and reliability are perhaps Mitchell’s biggest plus points over his Wallaby rivals. He’s been there and done it on a regular basis and has seldom let his country down. He may now be a little shy of the wow factor of many of the world’s leading wingers but his try-scoring record is hugely impressive, with 29 scores at a rate of one every other game.
Weaknesses: fitness has to be a major worry as far as his Test future is concerned. He’s effectively been out of action for close to a year-and-a-half so surely it will take him time to recapture his best form. Mitchell’s no midget by any means but he’s certainly a little smaller than the growing giants of the game like Welsh duo George North and Alex Cuthbert, while it remains to be seen whether a dodgy ankle will adversely affect his speed off the mark and his top-end pace.
Chances of being involved against the Lions: this one really is a 50/50 call. If the Lions had headed Down Under prior to 2011, Mitchell would have been an almost certain starter for the Wallabies. Had they toured last summer he’d have had no chance and had they just completed their three-match series in July of this year it would most likely have passed him by. But fast forward 11 months and it’s anyone guess as to whether he will make the starting line up. If he can rediscover his form of old then he’ll be a hard man to leave out but his shocking injury absence could mean we’ve already seen the best of one of the game’s best-known wings.
Rivals for the Wallaby shirt
With Ioane currently considered the Wallabies’ first-choice flyer, Mitchell appears to be heading for a full-on fight for just the one spot with a whole host of other contenders. And while no-one has cemented the berth in Mitchell’s absence, Deans shouldn’t be short of options out wide next year, if only they can all stay fit.
That’s been the biggest problem for the Australian selectors during Mitchell’s time out – the men picked to fill his shoes just haven’t remained injury free for long enough to make the shirt their own.
Brumbies youngster Tomane enjoyed a stellar debut Super 15 season but then succumbed to injury during the summer. The Rugby League convert didn’t see much ball on his Wallaby debut against Scotland but he proved he was more than up for the challenge defensively with one massive try-saving hit. But before he could cement his spot in the three-Test series with Wales, the 22-year-old suffered ankle damage in training and was forced to sit out the 3-0 whitewash. Tomane still hasn’t recovered from the setback and therefore wasn’t considered for selection in the squad to face New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina.
The man who replaced Tomane against the Welsh then followed a similar fate as injury struck him down in a similarly frustrating manner. Former Tongan Rugby League cap Cooper Vunadislocated his shoulder playing club rugby for Endeavour Hills last Saturday in preparation for the Wallabies’ summer campaign.
Vuna, who like Tomane was born in New Zealand, had shown glimpses of his potential in June but opted to undergo surgery this week. Deans confirmed that he could have carried on playing in the immediate future but would then have been faced with a likely six-month lay-off in the lead up to the Lions tour.
Choosing the tough option now rather than in two or three months’ time should see Vuna back in time for the start of the 2013 Super Rugby campaign but he’ll certainly be starting on the back foot as far as pressing his claims for a spot against the tourists are concerned.
Mitchell's previous exploits in an Aussie shirt stand him in good stead for next summer
Uncapped Reds youngster Dom Shipperley remains an outside bet having been part of the wider Wallaby squad this year but Mitchell’s biggest threats for a starting spot outside of Tomane and Vuna would appear to come from the two guys unwittingly vying for the tag of Australia’s ‘Mr Versatile’. Ashley-Cooper and O’Connor are two of their country’s most valued players but their best positions on the park are somewhat less clear.
O’Connor may be about to miss at the least the first two games of the Championship with a hamstring problem but he’s highly likely to be involved against the Lions if he’s fit. The question on everybody’s lips is where? The man himself has spoken of his desire to be nearer the action at 10 or 12 yet he’s played most of his international rugby out wide. And if Deans picks Berrick Barnes, Quade Cooper or even Beale at fly-half and either Barnes or Pat McCabe at inside centre, then O’Connor will most likely find himself considered for a wing spot. That would make life even more difficult for Mitchell, especially as O’Connor has often been Australia’s preferred goal kicker.
The future of Ashley-Cooper could also have a major impact on Mitchell’s chances of being top dog come June next year as his fellow Waratah battles to win a place in the centre, on the wing or at full back.
Ashley-Cooper has been a Wallaby since 2005 but he’s constantly described as a ‘utility back’ in the Australian press. He’s spent most of the season playing in the midfield at the Tahs but has also regularly been employed on the wing on the international stage and is now listed as a full back on the official Wallabies website. That same site probably sums up his lot the most succinctly by calling the 28-year-old former Brumbie the ‘Mister Fix-It’ of the Australian backline.
The fact that Ashley-cooper has featured in all 13 Tests last term and didn’t miss a single minute of the 2011 World Cup campaign would suggest he’ll start somewhere when the Lions come calling but Mitchell will be out to persuade Deans and co that his clubmate should be employed anywhere other than on the wing.