After a seemingly endless period of political one-upmanship and jockeying for position, Australia and New Zealand have finally arrived at a sensible compromise for Super Rugby 2021.
Two more Wallabies have re-signed to Australian Rugby with winger Drew Mitchell and prop Ben Alexander extending their contracts with the national union and their respective state teams.
The signings follow on from the Brumbies pairing of hooker Stephen Moore and utility back Adam Ashley-Cooper who recommitted for a further two years on Friday and Monday respectively.
Mitchell, who has just come off his sixth season as an international, gave the development of the Wallabies a vote of confidence by saying he believed silverware was ahead, and he didn’t want to miss out on sharing in that experience.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to have been involved with the Wallabies since 2005, but while I’ve had some great experiences in that time, we haven’t been able to win any of the big trophies like the Bledisloe [Cup], the Tri Nations or the [Rugby] World Cup,” he says.
“I really feel, with the progress that we’ve made as a team in the last two years especially, that we are capable of winning those tournaments. I didn’t want to leave without having given myself the best shot to share in those experiences.”
Mitchell has drawn confidence from specific Wallaby performances, most notably the wins achieved against South Africa in Bloemfontein and New Zealand at Hong Kong.
“We’re now starting to win games in circumstances that we haven’t been able to overcome in the past. That’s a pretty good indicator for me, both of the progress the team has made, but also of the potential that remains,” he says.
“I’d like to think that the best is yet to come – both for the Wallabies as a team – but also for me personally, in terms of my own development as a player.”
The rationale behind the pacy winger’s decision to re-sign is given even more credence by his initial omission from last year’s Tri Nations squad. Under those circumstances, it could have been easier to opt to quit Australia at the end of his last contract.
“Ironically, by the time I finished last year, I really felt that it was probably the best year I’d had performance wise in my career – both at Wallaby level but also with the Waratahs,” Mitchell says.
“I worked hard. Initially missing out on the Tri Nations squad made me work even harder, but I don’t feel that I dropped my head at all, and I’d like to think that my performances once I got back into the team showed that.”
For Alexander, the decision to stay in Australia was a thought provoking one, although he has no doubt that he reached the right conclusion.
“I was very thorough about it and explored all of the options because it was a significant decision in terms of my career,” he says.
“I drew up a set of criteria around what was important to me and that helped out a lot. Once I had gone through the process, the decision to stay was easy.”
Like Mitchell, Alexander says a feeling of unfinished business with both the Wallabies and his state side, and the carrot offered by the visit of the British & Irish Lions in two years time, were key factors in his thought process.
“We’ve done a lot of hard work with the Wallabies over the last three years to get to this point in our development. There’s still more to come – possibly the hardest work still lies ahead – but I think we all sense that we are on to something good, that the best of the team is still to come. Walking away from that wasn’t really an option.”
Alexander likens his own development as a player to that of the Wallabies as a team.
“I’d like to think that I can get better, I guess that’s what we all strive for,” he says.
“As far as my development goes, I still feel that Australia is the best place for me to be if I am to become the best player that I can be.”
Alexander was 16 when the British & Irish Lions last visited Australian shores in 2001, but he remembers the tour well and hopes to be part of a similar occasion in 2013.
“Playing the Lions is a rare opportunity. Like the [Rugby] World Cup, it is an experience that you will remember for the rest of your life. Hopefully I can be a part of it in two years time when they next come here.”
Australian Rugby Union Managing Director and CEO John O’Neill welcomed the latest re-signings.
“The most pleasing aspect of the past week is to hear how our leading players are still driven by the desire to make the Wallabies the best in the world, that they feel a sense of unfinished business until the goal is achieved, and that the opportunity to play against the Lions is so appealing,” he said.
“That tells me the culture around the team is strong. This is a young side, starting to taste success via the win against the All Blacks last October and the European champions France a few weeks later.
“They are No.2 in the world but still not satisfied. I think all Australian Rugby fans will be heartened by their commitment to continue improving and returning precious metal to the trophy cabinet.
“I’m delighted Drew and Ben have joined Stephen Moore and Adam Ashley-Cooper in re-committing to Australian Rugby for a further two years.”
Both Mitchell and Alexander were first choice Wallabies on last year’s Spring Tour, with Mitchell finishing off the year in fine style when he scored the second Test hat-trick of his 55-Test career in the 59-16 win over Six Nations champions France in Paris.
The feat allowed Mitchell to join four others who have scored hat-tricks for Australia twice.
It was the first instance of a Wallaby scoring three tries against France, and just the 25th hat-trick registered by an Australian player from the 520 Test matches that Australia has played.
The tries represented the 25th, 26th and 27th of his Test career, placing Mitchell eighth on the all-time Australian Test try-scoring list.
The strong finish to the year was an emphatic turnaround after Mitchell was initially excluded from the Tri Nations Squad.
Injury re-opened the selection door and the 26-year-old made the most of the reprieve, going on to feature in all but one of Australia’s Tri Nations matches during a year where he ended up playing 14 of Australia’s 15 Tests.
This included the historic 41-39 win in South Africa; where Mitchell scored a crucial second half try to put the Wallabies back in front on a night where he became the 34th Australian player to appear in 50 Tests.
Mitchell had earlier joined the Waratahs for the Super Rugby season, with New South Wales becoming the third Super Rugby team he had played for after stints with Queensland and the Western Force.
He appeared in every match for NSW and contributed nine tries, taking his tally in Super Rugby to 27 from 87 competition appearances since his debut for Queensland as a 20-year-old against the Highlanders at Invercargill in 2004.
Mitchell made his Test debut for Australia as a 21-year-old in 2005 and has featured for the Wallabies in every season since.
Alexander is a fresher face on the international scene – the 24-Test prop having begun his Test career in 2008, debuting off the bench against France in Sydney.
This came after a meteoric rise, which saw the now 26-year-old included in the first Australian squad selected by new coach Robbie Deans even though he had only made his Super Rugby debut for the Brumbies in that year’s competition.
Alexander went on to play four Tests in his maiden international season although, remarkably, his appearance in the Test against Italy at Padova on the Spring Tour in November represented the first starting role of his professional career at any level.
An Australian Under-21 representative in 2005, Alexander joined the Brumbies Academy programme in 2008 after returning from a short stint playing with Bedford in the English National Division One competition.
He advanced rapidly in Canberra, making his debut for the Brumbies off the bench against the Queensland Reds in round three of the competition before going on to appear six times prior to his shock Wallaby selection.
Alexander established himself in the Wallabies Test side in 2009, being one of just four players to feature in all 14 Tests played Australia that year.
After appearing as a replacement in five of Australia’s first six Tests of 2009, he started the last eight in succession, successfully being converted from the loosehead to the tighthead side of the scrum.
While a knee ligament injury sustained playing against Fiji in the Test season opener last year at Canberra Stadium limited Alexander’s Wallaby involvement in 2010, he returned on the Spring Tour, starting in all five Test matches on that trip to take his career appearance tally to 24.
He had earlier featured in all 13 matches played by the Brumbies in the 2010 Super Rugby competition, scoring seven tries to finish as the side’s leading try-scorer for the campaign.
Next week’s Super Rugby season opener against the (Waikato) Chiefs at Canberra Stadium will be the 33rd appearance of his Brumbies’ career.