Cork rugby: Youghal’s Ben Mitchell isn’t giving up on his American dream
Following a two-year stint with Austin Elite, the Youghal native transferred to San Diego Legion in advance of the 2020 Major League Rugby season.
The campaign had been going according to plan for the Californians with five straight wins propelling them to the summit of the MLR Western Conference standings.
Unfortunately, this proved to be the finishing point in the calendar year for San Diego.
The season was initially postponed on March 12 due to COVID-19 before ultimately being cancelled seven days later.
Given it will be approximately nine months until San Diego’s next competitive outing, Mitchell is looking into the possibility of a temporary return to the All-Ireland League and his former club UCC.
“I’ve been talking with the coaches here a little bit the last couple of weeks and I’m definitely trying to play again before the next MLR season.
“Whether that will be maybe going back home and playing in the AIL for a couple of months or something like that,” Mitchell explained.
“It’s obviously a huge amount of time not to be playing. Just trying to get something organised at the moment for me to hopefully play some rugby before next January.”
Prior to his Stateside sojourn, Mitchell played a significant role in UCC’s rise through the domestic rugby ranks.
He was a pivotal member of the squad that gained promotion from Division 2A in April 2016 and also featured in the early rounds of their 2017/18 campaign – which ended with the Leesiders earning a spot in the following season’s top-flight.
Despite now being forced to track their progressing on the far side of the Atlantic, Mitchell maintains a powerful affinity to the college outfit.
“I have pretty strong feelings for the club. I spent five and a half years there in total. If there’s a chance I can go back there and play maybe in September, I’d love that.
“Try and help them out if they were willing to accommodate me for a few weeks or a couple of months.”
However, Mitchell’s current situation in the US would leave UCC – or any other club for that matter – with a limited timeframe in which to utilise the towering lock’s undoubted talents.
Whereas San Diego team-mates Jamie Dever and Paul Mullen have returned to their Mayo and Galway homes respectively, the economics and finance graduate has remained in his adopted nation.
This is due to his desire to play international rugby with the US Eagles, who he qualifies to play for under the residency rule from 2021 onwards.
In order to gain this particular status, Mitchell won’t be allowed to leave America for more than 60 days in a given year. While this wasn’t in his mind when he first joined forces with Austin in 2017, it is has since become a burning desire for the 26-year-old.
“It wasn’t something I was thinking about and then I had a pretty good season in the first year. People were starting to suggest the idea to me and I had a couple of mates who were involved with the Eagles.
“The more I thought about it, the more I was decided that I wanted to pursue that idea. Hopefully if I keep working hard over the next year or two, I’ll be wearing an Eagles jersey.”
Mitchell will be among familiar company if Eagles supremo Gary Gold does come calling. From the current San Diego squad, 14 of them have lined out for the US national team at some point – including the aforementioned Mullen.
Yet it is the presence of another name on the Legion roster that really underlines the ambition being shown by head coach Rob Hoadley.
A two-time World Cup winner with New Zealand – for whom he amassed an astonishing haul of 103 caps – Ma’a Nonu arrived at Torero Stadium in the summer after completing his third stint with the Blues.
Though he is fast approaching his 38th birthday, the powerhouse centre continues to pack a considerable punch.
“It has been huge, a really cool experience. He does something in training every day and your jaw kind of drops,” Mitchell said of Nonu.
“You’re like ‘wow, that’s the calibre of player that he is’. It’s great to be around that every day and it sort of brings everyone’s standards up.
“Everyone is striving to be like that.”
The Legion faithful were only just beginning to get a taste of what Nonu could bring to the MLR and there will understandably be some concern over the future of their overseas recruits.
Mitchell has, however, received assurances from Hoadley and his coaching team that they will fight tooth and nail to return for the 2021 season with the same group intact.
“Just from talking to the coaches the last week or two, I know they’re definitely trying to bring back the majority of the squad from this year.
“Which is going to be huge going into next year. A big part of me coming over to San Diego this year from Austin was that it does have a reputation as the best professional environment in America,” Mitchell added.
“With my aspirations to play for the States in the next year or two, I thought this would be a good place to kick on and improve as a player.”