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Scrum-half has gone from problem position to one of England’s biggest strengths

Ben Spencer during Bath's preparation for the Premiership final against Northampton Saints
Ben Spencer will look to impose his kicking game on Alex Mitchell and Northampton at Twickenham - Getty Images/David Rogers

There was a point a few years ago where the idea of England without Ben Youngs and Danny Care at scrum-half was hard to imagine. Ahead of this summer’s tour of Japan and New Zealand, the England head coach Steve Borthwick has a clear frontrunner in Northampton’s Alex Mitchell with a wide supporting cast vying for spots on the plane, with three scrum-half places up for grabs.

Mitchell faces Bath’s Ben Spencer in Saturday’s Gallagher Premiership final, a matchup of contrasting styles with Mitchell’s appetite to snipe and Spencer’s excellent control of territory through his kicking game.

Harry Randall and Jack van Poortvliet have spent the last two weeks going toe to toe in training sessions at Pennyhill Park, with Raffi Quirke, so promising back in the autumn of 2021 before a torrid run with injury, healthy again and back in the squad this week after Sale’s semi-final defeat. All three have been working closely with assistant coach Richard Wigglesworth on getting the ball away from the ruck as quickly as possible, an essential part of England’s drive to speed up their attack and a shift in style which certainly suits Randall’s game.

“It’s a great position to be in for English rugby, isn’t it?” Randall said of the resources at scrum-half, sitting by an unseasonable fire at Pennyhill Park. “You’ve got plenty of nines stacking up, pushing to play for England. What more do you want? Some people see it as a bit unfortunate, but it’s not, is it.

“We’ve got great nines, strength in depth, we’re all pushing each other and ultimately it’s only going to make you a better player, isn’t it? We’ve been working really well together and it’s about working together and making each other better for the team, isn’t it? I feel like we’ve been doing it well this week.

“The most competitive part of rugby at the moment is the breakdown, isn’t it? It’s how quick you can get the ball in and out before allowing a contest at the breakdown. And even when there is a contest, how quickly can you get in and out to avoid them scragging you, trying to get to the ball. So working really well with Wiggy there. He’s got all sorts of little bits, pads, getting pressure on us, getting it in and out of our hands as quick as we can just to try to avoid those sort of situations. Even when we’re in those situations, still how can we get the ball away to avoid those situations?”

Better to have many options than only a couple - think of England’s current depth in midfield, for example - but it leaves Borthwick with plenty to ponder ahead of his squad announcement according to Care, who will be part of TNT’s coverage of the Premiership final.

Alex Mitchell in action for Northampton against Saracens in the Premiership semi-final
Mitchel's fast hands are a key part of Northampton's creative game - Getty Images/David Rogers

“I wouldn’t want to be Steve right now,” admits Care. “You have Quirke who I still think is brilliant, Van Poortvliet has come back who Steve has spent a lot of time with [at Leicester and England] and really likes, Randall who has unbelievable zip and tempo and can play quicker than anyone. He has been brilliant the back end of the season with the way Bristol went back to the type of play which suits Harry down to the ground. He’s unbelievable at that.

“Alex is the tempo for that Northampton team. His super skill is speed of ball, getting the ball away quickly, but I think he’s the best attacking No 9 in terms of manipulating defenders around the fringes of the ruck, bringing people out to create space for others with his snakey hips. The ball movement with his hands is incredible, his ability to offload as well. He creates one-on-ones for himself which means he can release the ball to others.

“With Ben Spencer, you have the best box-kicker in the league, the person who puts the ball on the money time after time. With Will Muir in particular chasing those balls and winning them back, then that transitional play to Finn [Russell] with an unstructured defence in front of him, they can cause Northampton some problems. And I think Spencer’s leadership which he’s shown this year has been incredible. He’s won trophies before which you cannot underestimate going into big finals like this. Being the Bath captain, he has been there and done it before and a lot of the players will be leaning on him this week.

“Five don’t fit into three. It’s going to be really tough. If you are Ben and Alex you’re desperate to get out on tour. You won’t be thinking about it this weekend, they’ll be thinking about winning a trophy, but you’d like to think both of them will go with the way that they’ve played. But how do you pick one from the other three? I’m not sure. Good luck to Steve!”

Indeed. Still, there are worse problems for the England head coach to have.

  • Watch Northampton Saints v Bath Rugby in the Gallagher Premiership Final this Saturday, live on TNT Sports 1 and discovery+ from 2pm

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