With Lions fever now firmly hitting Aussie shores as well as our own, we take another look at one of the Wallaby heroes hoping to feature heavily this summer.
We’ve already assessed the chances of the likes of James Horwill, Stephen Moore and the now doomed David Pocock and this week we’re focusing on another dangerman with bags of experience under his belt.
Veteran wing Drew Mitchell endured a nightmare 16 months in 2011 and 2012 yet he’s now back in the running for a Test spot come June and July.
And while he faces a tough task to make the Wallaby starting side given the fact that he was dropped by the Waratahs last week, Mitchell’s past achievements suggest he could still be the man of the moment in 2013.
Such a possibility seemed unthinkable last season when the 28-year-old was told his Lions dream was effectively over following the latest in a long line of injury setbacks. Mitchell was diagnosed with a ruptured tibial posterior tendon after the second Rugby Championship encounter with the All Blacks in August as his injury horrors continued apace.
The damage was expected to see him sidelined for close to a year but Mitchell somehow beat the odds by avoiding surgery after discovering things weren’t as bad as doctors first thought. The fact that Mitchell only found out that he could recover with rehab rather than an op when playing an Olympics-style computer game that proved he could run and jump without any serious pain or discomfort simply adds to the story he will be able to tell if he stars against the Lions.
That story will be a remarkable one given what he’s had to endure since April of 2011. Mitchell has played very little rugby since suffering a horrific ankle injury during the Waratahs’ Super 15 clash with the Reds 23 months ago and a Lions spot would be one hell of a comeback. 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 that season as the in-form flyer instantly realised his campaign was all but over.
Mitchell was almost immediately ruled out of the 2011 World Cup after being told he would require at least six months on the sidelines but – in a pre-cursor to what would follow in 2012 – 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.
A hamstring injury was sandwiched between serious ankle problems for Drew Mitchell
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.
But despite making just four appearances for the Tahs in 2012, Mitchell did enough to persuade Wallaby boss Robbie Deans that he was worthy of a place in his large Rugby Championship 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 was handed an early opportunity to reclaim the place that had become his almost by right until his ankle gave way so painfully. But yet again things turned sour against the All Blacks in Auckland and that looked to be that as far as his hopes of facing Britain and Ireland’s elite were concerned.
But that was until the X-Box outing with his niece and nephew swung things back in his favour just a few weeks after what looked to be a career-threatening setback. Mitchell recovered in time to make the end-of-year tour to Europe and went on to feature off the bench against England before starting the wins over Italy and Wales.
Making such a speedy return to the top table was some achievement given his recent run of misfortune but 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 late last year.
When it comes to backline stars, the Wallabies seem to possess more than their fair share, but when you looked at out-and-out widemen, injury free and in form for the final Tests of 2012, it’s a slightly different scenario.
Nick Cummins certainly impressed in the northern hemisphere and the likes of Tomane and Vuna may have pushed hard had they not suffered their own setbacks but Mitchell is streets ahead of that particular trio when it comes to experience. Cummins, Tomane and Vuna could possibly be the coming men of Wallaby rugby but Mitchell has been there, done it and got a T-shirt that they are all still some way off wearing.
With 63 caps to his name, 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 for the Wallabies, 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.
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.
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, and Deans appreciates the value of that kind of experience given the youth of much of his Wallaby party.
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: 63 (as of 21/03/2013)
Mitchell boasts an impressive try-scoring ratio for his country with 29 tries in 63 caps
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 just under one every other game.
Weaknesses: fitness has to be a major worry as far as his Test future is concerned. He was effectively out of action for close to a year-and-a-half and he’s not yet back to anywhere near his best. 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 and Scottish star Tim Visser, plus questions marks still remain as to whether a dodgy ankle will adversely affect his speed off the mark and his top-end pace.
Chances of being involved against the Lions: probably slightly behind the eight-ball given Digby Ioane’s class and O’Connor’s versatility but a strong run could swing things in his favour. If the Lions had headed Down Under prior to 2011, Mitchell would have been an almost certain starter for the Wallabies. Had they toured that summer or the summer after the series would have passed him by. But fast forward to March 2013 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 well-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 won’t be short of options out wide, 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 nail down 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.
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 league cap Vuna dislocated his shoulder playing club rugby in preparation for the Wallabies’ summer campaign and didn’t play again in 2012.
Reds youngster Dom Shipperley remains an outside bet having made his Test bow in Argentina this year but Mitchell’s biggest threats for a starting spot would appear to come from a new-found favourite and two guys unwittingly vying for the tag of Australia’s ‘Mr Versatile’.
Cummins has been a revelation since stepping up to international level in Rosario in September, while Adam 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.
A consistent performer at Super Rugby level with the Force, Cummins finally got his opportunity to impress in the Green and Gold thanks to the Wallabies’ almost endless injury list and he grabbed that chance with both hands. Nicknamed the Honey Badger for his ferocious attitude in defence, Cummins has done little wrong in his six Test appearances and has picked up two tries along the way.
Nick Cummins proved he can play at the highest level with a series of fine showings in late 2012
The 25-year-old has proved he can mix it with the best but, while technically he holds the shirt at the moment, he still doesn’t make many predicted Wallaby XVs currently being picked by former stars or Aussie papers.
Two men who do feature in most of those XVs are Ashley-Cooper and O’Connor, although where they are best employed is still a subject for heated debate.
O’Connor missed the entire 2012 Test campaign with a hamstring problem but he’s highly likely to be involved against the Lions if he’s fit – and as things stand, he is. 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 Kurtley 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 despite the fact that he’s featured at 10 and 15 for the Rebels so far this term. 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 22 in Brisbane 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 started this season in the midfield at the Tahs but has also regularly been employed on the wing on the international stage and is 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 almost all of his country’s Tests when fit in recent seasons 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.