Long-term followers of Eddie Jones’ selection strategy at scrum-half are probably feeling dizzy by this point.
England have started four different players in that position over their past five Test matches. None of them have worn the number nine jersey in consecutive games.
And, as of Monday’s training squad announcement, it would appear as though two of them – Harry Randall and Danny Care – are out of the picture again.
Whatever the circumstances, and however much Jones tells us to be open-minded about how he uses his bench, that would appear to be a striking churn for such a pivotal role.
At the start of this week, though, we did also receive a solid indication of Jones’ thinking with regard to England’s scrum-half spots at next year’s World Cup.
“We have probably got a pretty good idea of how we want to select the three half backs and at this stage we will be taking three half-backs to the World Cup,” he said.
“I want a half-back who can run the game for us, a half-back who can change the game for us and an experienced half back we can fall back on. All the half-backs in England fall in a certain role and it is a competition to see who is best.”
One could argue that some players cover more than a single base. Care, for instance, offers know-how as well as the ability to break up matches by sniping away from quick rucks and using his array of attacking kicks.
Anyway, the decision to bring three scrum-halves is sensible. World Cup squads for 2023 are allowed to contain 33 players, two more than the maximum four years ago. England will not need to make calculated selection gambles as they did in 2019, when they brought Willi Heinz as the sole deputy to Ben Youngs as well as just two tighthead props in Kyle Sinckler and Dan Cole.
As for the upcoming training camp, Youngs has returned to the fold straightaway and Jack van Poortvliet is retained to reward his assured introduction against the Wallabies. Alex Mitchell, presumably earmarked as the “half-back who can change the game for us”, is the third scrum-half.
Jones observed all three of these men during the East Midlands derby on Saturday and, although he ended up on the losing side, Mitchell continued his eye-catching start to the season. He is certainly an intrepid attacker.
Watch him here against Sale Sharks on the opening weekend of the Premiership campaign. From a scrum just inside Northampton Saints’ own 10-metre line, Juarno Augustus picks from the base…
… and feeds Matt Proctor:
A slow ruck results, but Mitchell sparks something. Sale defenders – Dan du Preez (8) and Jono Ross (20) arc around the breakdown:
Mitchell targets this ‘over-fold’ and snipes in the opposite direction, shaking off Gus Warr before beating Cobus Wiese and Matt Postlethwaite and darting into space:
To nit-pick, Jones will not have been completely impressed with Mitchell’s decision-making in broken-field. Ollie Sleighthome, one of the quickest wings in the league, begins on his right shoulder here:
Rather than fixing Tom O’Flaherty and freeing Sleightholme, Mitchell steps back inside:
Eventually, Sale escape.
The following round, Mitchell kick-started a bitty win over London Irish by conjuring this try for Augustus. A beautiful chip and chase is complemented by a fizzing, 20-metre pass to his back-rower:
Since the start of last season, Mitchell has 15 tries and 13 try assists in league action. Nobody can beat that combined tally of 28, with Care next on 24. Opta also measures ‘break assist passes’, that create line-breaks. Since the start of last season, Mitchell has the most in the Premiership, with 19.
Mitchell is an intuitive support runner who thrives as part of Northampton’s sweeping style. Jones is familiar with this. Last autumn, before he was usurped by Raffi Quirke for the matches against Australia and South Africa, Mitchell marked his Test debut with this opportunistic finish. He makes his own luck by trailing Adam Radwan and collecting the ricochet:
Those skills were in full evidence on Saturday as Northampton forged an early lead over Leicester Tigers at Franklin’s Gardens. Here, in the Mitchell floods through to cap some slick interplay between George Furbank and Rory Hutchinson:
Mitchell evidently has licence to trust his instincts with Northampton but, interestingly, finished the game with more kicking metres than anyone else in the game:
As well as hoisting high balls from the base of breakdowns, he stayed in the back-field to help push Tigers back with long strikes like this:
Just before that last strike had come Tommy Freeman’s try. Mitchell gathers the ball in the midst of a kick-tennis rally, spots that Leicester’s chase is uncharacteristically ragged and sends George Furbank between Freddie Burns, who has pressed up, and Harry Potter, who is left behind:
Mitchell fixes Burns by shaping to kick and throwing a hint of a dummy before passing to Furbank, who has circled around him:
This is the sort of slicing counter-attack that Antoine Dupont tends to instigate for France. Mitchell is certainly something of a wild-card.
Jones will have been impressed with aspects of how Van Poortvliet and Youngs performed, as well. The former, who does not turn 22 until next May, is already a polished player.
This kick in the 10th minute, from his own try-line, is nicely weighted. Ollie Chessum is able to close down Matt Proctor and Northampton do well to keep possession:
Shortly afterwards, from this Saints scrum, Van Poortvliet bolts away from the set piece to take advantage of Augustus’ iffy pass and tackles Fraser Dingwall well behind the gain-line:
Van Poortvliet’s slick service helped the Leicester forwards overwhelm Saints later on and Youngs was lively from the bench. Northampton were down to 13 men at this stage, but Youngs capitalised on the advantage in this attack, buzzing around and touching the ball three times in the build-up to George Martin’s try:
Mitchell should fancy his chances of pushing past Youngs and Van Poortvliet to become the scrum-half that Jones can count on to “run a game”. Indeed, this is the front-line role that all scrum-halves will be striving towards.
There could well be more movement ahead of next summer. None of Care, Randall or Quirke can be ruled out entirely. But, in acknowledging that he wants a game-changer, Jones has opened the door for Mitchell to translate his Saints form to the Test area.
Match images courtesy of BT Sport and Premiership Rugby