Mitchell happy with his forward planning

Paul Trow hears how England expect to exploit their summer of opportunity
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The Independent Online
FOR a while, John Mitchell wanted nothing to do with England's summer suicide mission to the southern hemisphere. With at least a dozen of Clive Woodward's main men likely to be missing, most with injuries, the England forwards' coach, himself a former All Black tourist, feared the worst for a makeshift squad in his native land.

After an arduous season both with England and in his "day" job as player- coach at Sale, the 34-year-old New Zealander could have been forgiven for feeling that the forthcoming tour was just not worth the effort. Indeed, he said as much last month, only to change his mind a couple of weeks ago and throw his weight fully behind Woodward's callow taskforce. A lesser man might have claimed he had been misquoted in the first place about not wanting to tour, but not "honest" John Mitchell.

"Sure, I made the comment that I would have to consider my position if 12 to 15 of our players were missing," said the former No 8. "But when Clive and I got together and looked at the reasons for the withdrawals, I took a different view.

"What came through was that the tour was an exciting opportunity to work on our other players. It's a bit `sink or swim' for them, but some will definitely develop substantially and if we can come back with 15 new international players capable of challenging the guys who didn't go, then England will be far stronger for it. The more competition we create for places the better.

"It's amazing how a team can change over a year or so. In New Zealand, they have a huge conveyor belt of talented backs but their options amongst the tight forwards are starting to run out. Sean Fitzpatrick has gone and one or two of the others are getting on.

"I think our hardest matches will be the Second Test in New Zealand and the game against South Africa. The All Blacks often start a series slowly only to improve dramatically a week later, while the 16-hour time difference in travelling to South Africa will take a lot out of the players.

"Matt Dawson [England's tour captain] got it right when he said that some of our newcomers are going to have to grow up very quickly. They won't be used to the pace or intensity of the game in the southern hemisphere, including the three matches which aren't Tests, and if the opposition sniff any weakness they will step it up even more."

Nevertheless, Mitchell believes there could be parallels with the 1993 All Blacks' tour of Britain, during which he captained a highly successful midweek team. "On that visit, we were minus several stars - John Kirwan, Grant Fox and Michael Jones to name but three - and a lot of the players who did come were unknown at the time. But it was a big opportunity for them and some were destined to make it."

Words like "opportunity", "challenge" and "motivation" crop up frequently as Mitchell discusses England's prospects under the Southern Cross. The last of this optimistic trinity is particularly apt in the light of the party's depiction by Dick McGruther, the chairman of the Australian Rugby Union, as "the most under-equipped group of Englishmen to be sent to Australia since the first fleet."

Rod MacQueen, Australia's coach, has dissociated himself from this conviction but Mitchell welcomes the barb. "I hope this guy keeps coming out with these quotes because it gives us enormous ammunition. I can understand what the Australians are saying from a marketing or selling point of view, but John Hart [the New Zealand coach] has adopted a more sensible approach.

"True, you never hear of an All Black or Springbok turning down an opportunity to play for his country, but unfortunately the players in this part of the world have had too much rugby and need a break to get themselves right."

Mitchell, naturally, is pleased with the proposed fixture structure for next season, agreed by the leading clubs and the Rugby Football Union. "At last they've realised we've got to give these boys at least a full month of rest and relaxation. At Sale, none of my players who are touring will report back before 3 August."

Laced with opportunity though this summer is, Mitchell has already swallowed one bitter pill. His 31-year-old brother Paul, who spent many seasons understudying Fitzpatrick as the Auckland hooker, was having an outstanding Super 12 campaign after finally stepping out of the great man's shadow until a recent freak accident during training on a beach left him with a badly broken ankle and possibly out of the game for a year.

"He was tipped to play for New Zealand A against England," said Mitchell. "But despite the injury, the selectors have told him he should still be in contention for the World Cup squad once he is fit again."

England's absent wounded are no doubt hoping the same applies to them.