Craig Mitchell has had some great days at the Principality Stadium down the years. Back in 2011, he started for Wales in victories over both Ireland and England there. Now the 15-times capped former Test prop has another stadium memory to savour.
A couple of days short of his 36th birthday, he has just helped his village club Tonna RFC become the first winners of the WRU Shield, with a 52-19 victory over Crumlin. To put the icing on the cake, he stormed over for their seventh try in the final play of the game.
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It’s a very different looking Mitchell these days. Having weighed in at over 19st during his playing days with Wales, he is now down to 15st 10lbs and lining up on the blindside flank rather than the tighthead.
He joined up with Tonna at the start of this season, having called time on a wandering professional career that took in spells at Neath, the Ospreys, Exeter, Cardiff Blues, the Dragons, Angouleme, Newcastle, Yorkshire Carnegie and Cornish Pirates. Now he is back home.
“Tonna has been my club for many a year. A group of us went up from Skewen RFC at U16s/Youth and they welcomed us from the start. It all began there. It’s a real family friendly club,” he said.
“They welcomed us with open arms and ever since I have always had an affiliation with Tonna. I coached there for two seasons a few years back.”
Explaining his new trimmed down look and the move to the flank, he said: “Lockdown sort of initiated it where I couldn’t get access to any weights, so I couldn’t keep the weight on. Then I came back and had a couple of injuries, so that’s when the transition came. I had a chat with the coaches at Tonna and spoke about maybe playing back row and we said let’s just give it a go.
“I am enjoying it there. I enjoyed propping, but it does really take it’s toll on you physically with the pressures. Back row frees you up a bit more and I like being in the game.
“I still love the game, it’s just now I am doing it at a different level. Not that I didn’t enjoy it playing professionally, but I am enjoying it being with all the boys.”
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It’s been a hugely successful season for Tonna who are top of Division 3 West Central C and now pushing for the league and cup double.
“Obviously with Covid, it’s been quite a tough time. I am just landed that we have all managed to stick together and push through this season. It’s great to have that good feeling back. It’s going from strength to strength at the club,” said the Neath-born Mitchell.
“The boys have been real hard working over the years and just come up short, but this year it just all seems to have clicked and I’m just really pleased for the squad and the people of Tonna. They came in their thousands to the stadium today. We wouldn’t be in this position without them. They turn up week-in, week-out for us.”
Reflecting on the Shield victory in front of a crowd of 3,375, he said: “Obviously playing for your country is the pinnacle of anyone’s career, but to do it with the Tonna boys is very special. It’s been a nice day. I’m just really pleased for everyone involved. It’s definitely deserved.”
So with his 36th birthday coming up on Tuesday, how much longer will Mitchell keep lacing the boots? “Oh I don’t know, I will take it year by year. As long as the body is feeling ok, I think I will carry on.”