Alex Mitchell Exclusive: ‘I don’t think I am world-class by any means’

Alex Mitchell says he and his Northampton Saints teammates were left 'frustrated' by their performances against Leicester Tigers last season
©Northampton Saints

For his efforts in Northampton Saints’ 38-22 win over London Irish last weekend, Alex Mitchell was named as Premiership Rugby’s Player of the Week.

Just a few days later, the 25-year-old sits across the table in a hospitality suite in cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens, arms folded and his thoughts firmly on an East Midlands clash with Leicester Tigers.

Playing 73 minutes against the Exiles last Saturday, Mitchell left a well-rounded display on the field and sat down on the bench to a standing ovation from all who had made their way to the Gardens. Beating four defenders, making two clean breaks, bagging one try assist and a try of his own, his peformance brought plenty of praise from all quarters of the rugby world.

Despite a 16-point winning margin, it was not quite a comprehensive 80 minutes for Saints. In the second half, following a flurry of changes, London Irish scored tries through Will Joseph and Ollie Hassell-Collins, while Henry Arundell had a searing score disallowed.

But even after an individual accolade and heaps of praise, Mitchell is quick to downplay his efforts in the game.

“I don’t think it was too much of a huge performance,” Mitchell told TRU. “Obviously I did a few really good things, and a solid performance for 80 minutes which I was pretty happy with but I don’t think it was anything special.

"They are the performances I want to put in every week and I think it was a better performance on the weekend. I am happy with it, but I am always trying to get that every week and there is little things you can always improve.

“For me, I am always in and around the game. As a scrum-half, you are always around the ball. You are always creating tempo so if the team aren’t performing well, it is normally due to you not performing as well.

“It can be like that. We felt like it was a clunky game and in bits we struggled, so they are the things I think we need to get better at this week.”

Danny Cipriani described the assist for Juarno Augustus’ try as ‘inspired play’, Mitchell chipping the ball over onrushing defenders and distributing the ball to the South African who was rampaging down the right touchline.

It was high praise for Mitchell, who Cipriani first came across in the Sale Sharks Academy before the scrum-half’s departure to the East Midlands in 2015. There was even a Cipriani-esque quality to that looping pass to the outside, Mitchell’s abilities never more plain than in his most recent performance.

His head coach, Sam Vesty, has overseen his growth from a fledgling player at Franklin’s Gardens to established Premiership scrum-half. At the time, Mitchell was trading places with Springbok No.9 Cobus Reinach, the Rugby World Cup winner and the 25-year-old becoming two of the most potent threats at half-back in the top-flight.

Becoming the undisputed starting scrum-half after Reinach’s departure to Montpellier in 2020, Mitchell has operated in one of the most free-flowing teams in the Premiership. Last year, Saints registered the most tries in the competition, Mitchell’s game management and maintenance of tempo a major reason for their dominance.

Even earning his first England cap last November against Tonga - and having been in and out of Eddie Jones’ squad for much of the past two years - Vesty believes that in his current vein of form, the scrum-half is on the road to higher honours.

“Mitch is a great player, a really good player,” Vesty said. “He has been performing at a very high level for a good, long time for us. He must be very close to getting some international recognition because he is fantastic for us in so many different ways.

“We all see the fancy bits that he does, and he does a fair few of those, but his basics are world-class as well. I think that is the reason he should get chances at higher levels.”

When talking about making his England debut nearly 12 months ago, Mitchell calls it a ‘huge dream of mine since I was a little kid’. Ultimately, the 25-year-old has both feet firmly planted on the ground when asked how much he thinks about his international future.

“Not too much,” Mitchell said. “When I am with Northampton, I don’t really think about England too much. I just focus on doing my job, and look, these are the ones who pay my wages and my job is here.

“If I perform well here, I will get opportunities at the top level. I don’t really try and look too far ahead or look at selection because it is someone’s opinion, and you can’t change that so you just focus on what you can control.”

In the summer, Mitchell was involved with England’s preparations for their tour of Australia but missed out on selection. This was due to the reintroduction of Danny Care to the set-up - with Ben Youngs taking time off to be with family - while Harry Randall and Leicester Tigers' Jack van Poortvliet were the other No.9's to board the plane.

As it was, the Tigers youngster would move ahead of Randall in the reckoning, showing what he had learnt from Richard Wigglesworth and Youngs throughout Leicester's title-winning season.

“The international game is a bit different,” Mitchell said. “It is less free-flowing and it is more set-piece stuff and doing the basics really well.

“For me, I am always trying to get better in that; the passing, the kicking, the running game, to get the whole round game because you can’t just have one string to the bow as an international scrum-half. You need everything. There is always something to work on.”

In his earlier media session, Mitchell described what he wants to improve upon. This included working on his defence, taking his completed tackle percentage above the 90% mark, but he also discussed how he is on the lookout for ‘that perfect game’.

Following his exploits last weekend, you would think that the 25-year-old isn’t too far away from that but as Mitchell previously mentioned, he doesn’t feel as though he is there just yet.

“I feel like I am performing well,” Mitchell said. “I don’t think I am world-class by any means, and obviously there is areas I need to get better at. For me, I try not to look too far ahead.

“It is the coaches opinions and what they want in their side. Obviously I feel like I am going well, but not too well.

“I don’t really try and look at that, just concentrating on Saints first and then the other stuff will look after itself.”

For the visit of Leicester Tigers to Franklin’s Gardens for the East Midlands derby, Northampton will be getting their England internationals back. This includes Test captain Courtney Lawes, along with Tommy Freeman and club skipper Lewis Ludlam, who all played a part in the series win.

Asked about his overriding memories of the fixture in years gone by, Mitchell quickly mentions Manu Tuilagi infamously punching Chris Ashton, the latter now lining up for Tigers.

In the meetings between the sides last season, Northampton lost all three. This included a 55-26 defeat at the Gardens, a 35-20 loss at Mattioli Woods Welford Road before going down 27-14 in the play-offs.

Getting to play their arch-rivals so soon in the new campaign will be a chance to vanquish those demons. Several weeks ago, Freeman spoke of the anguish of losing a game which Northampton had the better of for large periods, meaning there might be more motivation for the men in Green, Yellow and Black to end on the winning side this time around.

“Regardless of the performance and the result, if you lose by 50 or if you lose by a point, it is a frustrating one and obviously because it was a semi-final, it is such a huge game,” Mitchell said.

“Everyone was frustrated and we felt like we could of easily done a job on them, and if little things went well and we got the things that went wrong better, it would have been alright. Like I said, frustration and stuff, but at the end of the day someone had to win.

“They did a job last year at home on us, and in the semi-final, so I think we are quite hurt by that. This year, we want to put some wrongs right. We have got an opportunity to do that this weekend especially at home.”