Tuesday 21 August 2018

New No 9 points to Stringer's influence in move west

Former Sale scrum-half James Mitchell is eager to shake off injury and stake his claim in new home

James Mitchell. Picture: Getty
James Mitchell. Picture: Getty

Daragh Small

When John Cooney was given his chance to impress in the absence of Ireland international Kieran Marmion for Connacht last season, the scrum-half made the most of his opportunity.

Cooney went on to score three tries in 14 games for the westerners and now has exited to fill the void left by Ruan Pienaar at Ulster, with an Ireland cap under his belt and a bright start to his time in the white shirt.

Marmion is still the first choice scrum-half at Connacht, but this season ex-Sale Shark James Mitchell will be pressing his case for a regular starting spot.

The former England U-20 No 9 arrived at the Sportsground as new head coach Kieran Keane's second signing in June, and a shoulder injury has hindered his prospects so far.

But Mitchell is determined to settle into the team once he gets some game-time under his belt, as he has to the lifestyle in Galway and at the Sportsground.

"I love it here in Galway. I have been made feel very welcome," said Mitchell.

"From the very first day I settled in really quick. I am living with Gavin Thornbury and that's good to have a teammate to live with. We actually bounce off each other in terms of new plays and helping each other out.

"It's a real family atmosphere in Connacht and a really great place to be. The coaches are top class. There is a lot of difference between Sale and Galway but it's great to have the family atmosphere here too."

The 22-year-old Maidstone native, grew up in Manchester, and Sale was the likely option for his rugby career to get going.

"Since I could walk I had a rugby ball in my hand. My dad Glyn was a rugby coach and he played from an early age. I way always keen to play rugby. I have two brothers and my younger brother Alex is actually at Northampton Saints. He's a scrum-half there and we have always been playing rugby too," said Mitchell.

"I got picked up by Sale when I was about 16 and that is when I got serious and I had a real good go at it. I signed a contract with Sale when I was 18."

Mitchell has a grandmother, Noreen Hart, who was born in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, and three cousins in Belfast.

But England was his first choice as youngster and he represented the national side all the way up from U-16 to U-20 level where he played five times in a World Rugby Junior Championship.


At Sale he got the best possible grounding in the game, and garnered massive experience despite leaving the club at such a young age.

"I was lucky enough since I have been at Sale, I was able to work with fellow scrum-halves Dwayne Peel, Chris Cusiter, Mike Phillips and Peter Stringer. I have a lot of experience to work off. I was with Peter last year and he really helped me out and I was appreciative of that," Mitchell added.

"With all of the caps he has had for Ireland and things like that, he was always pushing me to do the extra. Peter had little tips here and there about my passing, keeping my head down for example. Any questions I had he was always open to answering them and helping me to get better. When I signed for Connacht he gave me a good-luck text as well.

"Peter had such a long career too. The one big thing I learned from him was his professionalism, how professional he was, he was a great guy from that respect. He was always pushing me to do my extras and he was always doing them as well."

Last season Mitchell also got to operate alongside a former PRO12 winner in the shape of ex-Connacht out-half AJ MacGinty, and that was another eye-opening experience.

"I had a couple of games alongside AJ. He is a really good player as well. He is one of the dominant tens in the Aviva Premiership and is going to do really well at Sale," said Mitchell.

"He gave me a heads-up on what Connacht is like. He said it's a great place to play your rugby, you'll fall in love with Galway and the coaching here is top notch.

"I wasn't getting the game-time I liked at Sale. I got in touch with Connacht and then I signed with them. It was a fresh start which is good.

"After speaking to AJ he said Kieran Keane is going to be a top class coach, which he is, and it's great to learn off him."

And from working with one great Ireland international, Mitchell will be competing with one of the up and coming stars for the county and he cannot wait to pit his wits with Marmion.

"Marmion and Caolin Blade are both very good No 9s. It's great to learn off them and pick up different things off them and also to compete with them. They are both top players and it's great to have that competition," said Mitchell.

"I like to run with the ball. I wouldn't be the most conservative nine. I like to get out and try and spot a gap if it's there. I try and get the ball away quickly if I can.

"I have been watching Connacht play for the last number of years and the way they play has excited me.

"It would be great to get a bit of game-time this year. If I improve as a player and get better with my passing and basics I will be happy.

"At the moment I am just trying to break into the Connacht first team and that's my main focus. I will see where I am at the end of the year.

"But I still have lots to work on before I even think of myself at being at international standard."

Irish Independent

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