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Cork man Mitchell making big impression in Major League Rugby in the US

The former UCC second row tells us about life with Austin Elite in Texas.

BEN MITCHELL COULD have been forgiven for making excuses in his rugby career.

Now taking the new Major League Rugby [MLR] competition in the US by storm, the former UCC second row has had to follow an unusual route to become a professional rugby player, but he has never seen anything as a barrier.

F10I2588 Mitchell has been in excellent form for Austin Elite. Source: Norma Salinas/Austin Elite

He came through the relatively small club of Youghal RFC in Cork, attended Midleton College, where rugby wasn’t the biggest deal, then moved into the AIL ranks to battle for recognition.

There was an appearance for a Munster Development team in 2016, but no follow-up from the province. He had interest from clubs in the English Championship, some UK universities and a French outfit last year, but nothing concrete came through.

Undeterred, Mitchell – who was a centre or fullback up until just four years ago – kept chasing his dream and improving himself as a player.

His mindset was always ambitious and even the fact that he was born without fingers on one of his hands has never held him back.

Many people would see it as a major impediment to playing a professional sport, but the impressive 24-year-old views it in a positive light.

“I was born without any fingers on my left hand and when I was 18 or 19 months old, I had pretty complex surgery where they took the second toe from each foot and basically transplanted them onto my left hand,” explains Mitchell.

“I had that surgery done and it’s been a huge factor in my life because it allowed me to do so many things that I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise, like catch a rugby ball the way I do or play golf.

“It’s probably a little bit unusual in professional sports; you don’t see too many guys with something like I have.

“I have a full palm so that obviously makes it easier. I don’t know life without that so it’s never stopped me catching the ball or anything like that. It’s what I’m used to and I seem to get on fine with it.”

Mitchell Try Mitchell scores a try for Austin.

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Indeed, the determined Mitchell is making a big impact for Austin Elite in MLR this season, earning a place in the league’s official team of the week three times so far.

His athleticism, work rate and skills have stood out for the Texas-based side, with whom he signed a two-year contract at the beginning of this inaugural MLR season.

“It’s such an exciting time,” says Mitchell. “The league is so new and there’s massive potential here. It’s great to be here for the start of it.”

Mitchell has already had plenty of former team-mates and rugby-playing friends back in Ireland getting in touch to find out more about MLR.

Although there is currently a limit of five non-US players in each squad, that will increase next season, when Rugby United New York will join the league to bring the number of clubs up to eight.

Mitchell has a good batch of compatriots around him in Austin, with fellow Cork man and now USA international prop Paddy Ryan part of the Elite squad, while New York have loaned ex-Leinster U20 and Lansdowne back row Ross Deacon and former Connacht academy scrum-half Marcus Walsh to them for the season.

On top of that, one of Mitchell’s good mates has recently flown in to join them in Austin.

“We got Ned Hodson, who was with the Munster academy before, as well. He would be a close friend of mine, we went to school together in Midleton and played together in UCC for a couple of years.

“Ned has a US passport and it was heading towards the end of the season back home and we tapped him up to get out here. It’s great having a good crew of Irish boys!”

The connection between Mitchell and Hodson was obvious when the second row set up the fullback for a brilliant score in Austin’s win against New Orleans [below].

Mitchell Hodson

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There’s a further link to Ireland in the shape of player/forwards coach Pedrie Wannenburg, who previously spent two seasons with Ulster. Though currently sidelined with a hamstring injury, the 37-year-old’s experience has been important for Austin.

“He’s relatively new to coaching but he has a very good understanding of the game and sets high standards for everybody,” says Mitchell.

“His experience is good too because I’d say the average age of our team is around 23 or 24, so having a guy who has been around the block at such a high level for a long time, that’s great.”

Austin had a crowd of under 1,000 at their only home game so far, but Mitchell has played in front of close to 5,000 in Salt Lake City and almost 3,000 at Houston and Glendale.

Mitchell and the other Irish players – the likes of Tadhg Leader are at San Diego and Dylan Fawsitt is with Glendale – have compared MLR to Division 1A of the AIL in terms of standard.

There is some disparity between the quality of the top players – such as Fiji’s Olympic gold medal-winning sevens captain Osea Kolinisau at Houston – and some relatively inexperienced American players who have only been in rugby for three or four years.

But the enthusiasm around MLR is exciting and the European rugby community is taking notice as it appears the US has finally found a sustainable professional competition with scope for genuine growth.

Asked how he ended up playing in Texas, Mitchell says it’s “a funny story.”

He was travelling in the US in the summer of 2017, while keeping rugby in the back of his mind, and ended up playing for the Gentlemen of Aspen club in Colorado, for whom he starred in a tournament called Ruggerfest.

S12 Mitchell carries for Austin. Source: Norma Salinas/Austin Elite

The MLR clubs were watching that day, searching for talent ahead of this season’s first campaign, and there was immediate interest in Mitchell from a number of clubs.

The Cork man did a combine in Houston – essentially like the NFL combine but with rugby skills drills thrown in – but it was Austin who made the most convincing offer, with Wannenburg an important figure in convincing Mitchell to sign for them.

Mitchell only had to move to the US in January to start his deal in Austin, allowing him to play for UCC in the first half of the Ulster Bank League this season.

Moving to the States obviously meant he missed out on the Cork club’s impressive promotion into Division 1A ahead of next season.

“It was actually very tough,” says Mitchell of missing out as his friends and long-time team-mates earned promotion, although he recalls going “fairly crazy” in a hotel in Houston the morning of an Austin match as he followed UCC’s play-off against Banbridge on Twitter.

UCC have been instrumental in Mitchell’s journey. He moved to the university after school in Midleton and started playing for their U20 side, where Dave Keane convinced him to make a move from centre to the second row.

His progress to UCC’s senior team brought him under the coaching of Dave O’Mahony and Peter Scott, who were also massive for his development. Indeed, Mitchell says Keane, O’Mahony and Scott are “the three biggest influences on my career so far.”

“I can’t speak highly enough about the club,” says Mitchell of UCC. “Where I am right now, playing professional rugby, is all because of the coaching and development I got in the club, the way I was looked after, on the field and off it.”

While Midleton College isn’t renowned as a rugby hotbed, Mitchell loved his time there too and the fact that professional players like Munster’s Dave O’Callaghan and Ulster’s Clive Ross came through the school gave the likes of himself and Hodson role models.

GA4 Mitchell came through Midleton College. Source: Norma Salinas/Austin Elite

Playing for the Munster ‘A’ Schools team – made up of players from schools outside the elite Munster Schools Senior Cup – also gave him helped to build his desire for higher honours.

Mitchell was actually born in Nottingham to UK-native parents, but his father’s job saw the family move to Cork when he was six and Youghal RFC was where his rugby adventure began, his father playing on until he was the ripe old age of 42.

His parents are huge Munster fans who travel to all of the province’s European games, while they enjoyed a recent visit to the US to see their son in action.

Life in Austin is good for Mitchell, off the pitch as well as on it.

“It’s is a great town, there’s a pretty young population,” he says. “UT – the University of Texas – is a massive university and then people call Austin the ‘second Silicon Valley’, it’s like Silicon Valley’s little brother.

“Google, Apple and Samsung – all of those firms are here, so you have young graduates here working for them. There’s so much to do and it’s just a great city.”

His love for life in the US so far means Mitchell feels he could well use up the full five years of his current professional sports visa in the country, which would also mean he would qualify to play for the Eagles under residency terms.

“It actually got put to me up at the Ruggerfest tournament by one of the USA 7s coaches – he was already hinting at it and asking me if I had any US relations, any grannies from the US,” says Mitchell of the prospect of playing for the US in the future.

“I don’t unfortunately but he was already suggesting that if I stick around in the States for a few years, they would be looking at me. That’s obviously a long way off and I would have to do my five years over here to qualify, but it’s definitely at the back of my mind.”

Robin Sinton and Ben Mitchell Mitchell in action for UCC in 2016. Source: Presseye/Angus Bicker/INPHO

Long before that, Mitchell will look to help Austin into the MLR play-offs this year, with four regular-season games remaining in what is a relatively short campaign.

He has had to work hard for every bit of progress in his career so far, but Mitchell always backed himself to break into the professional game.

“I knew if I kept playing well week-in, week-out in the AIL, something would come of it.

“Unusually, it came over in the States, which I wasn’t really expecting. But if I hadn’t signed the contact over here and was still playing with UCC this year, which was the plan originally, I think I would have eventually found my way into the professional game.”

His positive early impression for Austin is only the start of it.

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Murray Kinsella

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