Drew Mitchell (Gallo)
London – Leaner and meaner than ever, winger Drew Mitchell is on the verge of one of Australian rugby’s great comebacks.
The 31-year-old’s international career looked to be all over when he left Australia two years ago and headed off to France before he was thrown an unexpected lifeline with the appointment of Michael Cheika as coach.
With only a year to prepare a team for the World Cup, Cheika convinced the Australian Rugby Union to end its policy of only selecting players based in Australia on the condition they had accrued at least 60 caps.
Mitchell, who made his test debut in 2005, qualified so headed home on a wing and a prayer in the hope of getting picked but his fondness of French food had come at a price and Cheika banished him to the ‘fat club’.
“When I first came back, I had a bit of work to do,” Mitchell told reporters on the eve of Saturday’s World Cup final between Australia and New Zealand.
“That was identified by Cheikh’ and the coaching staff so myself and one of the other boys were singled out for some extra duties.”
The extra work has paid off with Mitchell forcing his way back into the Wallabies starting lineup and playing a key role in getting the team to Saturday’s final.
He scored two tries in the pool game win over Uruguay and two more in Australia’s quarter-final victory over Scotland, taking his World Cup career tally to 14, just one short of the all-time record shared by Jonah Lomu and Bryan Habana.
Despite putting on extra weight during his time in France, Mitchell said his overall game had improved during his European adventure.
“More than anything, I’ve got a lot of experience now compared to what I did have in tournament type rugby with my involvement with the Heineken Cup with Toulon,” he said.
While Mitchell’s international career is taking off again, Australia’s other winger Adam Ashley-Cooper is unsure about his.
Both are 31 and both made their test debuts in 2005. But unlike Mitchell, Ashley-Cooper remained in Australia, although he is moving to France after the World Cup.
“The older you get and the more you know the time’s limited in the jersey,” Ashley-Cooper told reporters.
“It’s fair to say that this will be my last World Cup, I doubt I’ll be running around in four years’ time, that’s for sure.
Like Mitchell, Ashley-Cooper has been in vintage form during the tournament, scoring a hat-trick in last weekend’s semi-final win over Argentina and would love nothing better than to crown his career by winning the Webb Ellis Cup.
Ashley-Cooper fell in love with the World Cup when he was just a kid, with his father waking him in the middle of the night to watch the 1991 tournament.
“I remember him pointing out David Campese and saying the name and, ‘this guy, he knows how to score tries,’ because I was obsessed with scoring tries,” Ashley-Cooper said.
Australia won that tournament – beating England in the final at Twickenham – and Ashley-Cooper was hooked but his first World Cup as a player ended in disappointment with Australia knocked out of the 2007 quarter-finals by England.
“I took it pretty hard and went into a bit of a shell for a few months,” he said. “It took me a while to recover.
“Ever since then I’ve only had motivation to succeed in a Rugby World Cup and there’s an opportunity for that on the weekend.”