Not the best summer to be an Australian in England, in the wake of the Ashes and the Lions tour, Aussie Mitch Lees missed the chance to restore some national pride when the London Welsh players swapped tackle bags for the willow and a spot of cricket.
Lees had the weight of nation on his shoulders when he walked to the wicket at Old Deer Park last week, only to be out second ball caught by James Lewis off the bowling off brother Rob, having smashed his first ball for four.
“It’s weird the English going so well and a Pomme won the Sydney City2Surf, which is a bit of a joke,” said Lees.
“We haven’t got much going for us at the moment. We don’t need the Ashes - the soccer World Cup’s coming up, so we’ll take that. There’s been plenty of stick, but more on the accent than any sports.”
Lees may not have shone in the middle but he has more than made his mark on the rugby pitch since arriving from Sydney club side Eastwood Rugby. Three tries in Exiles’ three pre-season friendlies, including a brace in the win at Henley, has seen the flanker hit the ground running.
“I’ve been on the end of a couple, just trailing a winger like Joe [Ajuwa] when he breaks the line and busts four tackles - it’s not hard to stay on his inside for the last pass. And coming round the corner off Rob Lewis isn’t bad either and straight through under the posts,” he said.
“It’s been good, it’s been fun. I never thought I’d get the opportunity to play a Heineken Cup side like the Scarlets. I’ve been putting the hard yards into training and I know Justin’s liked what I’ve been doing, and that gives you the attitude to go into a game and prove a bit more.
“Every player’s personal goal is to make the starting team and mine would be the same, and to try and get as much game time as I can. And when I’m on the field just to do what I love doing.”
Lees made his senior grade debut for semi-pro side Eastwood in 2010 and captained them to Shield Shute success the following year, with victory over Sydney University in the Grand Final, to end the club’s eight-year wait for a shield title.
His impressive performances saw him selected for the ACT Brumbies A team earlier this year, but full-time rugby was what Lees craved and the opportunity to test himself in a professional environment at London Welsh is one that he’s clearly determined to grasp with both hands.
“I had to make the decision whether to stay in Australia or try overseas, and I chose overseas because I was getting messed around a little bit. So I made the decision with my partner to come over. I wanted to try my hand professionally,” he said.
“As much as it’s semi-professional [Shield Shute] it’s a quality competition. I was knocking on the door but I couldn’t get my foot in the door.”
Although there was an opportunity on the table to play in France, Lees’ decision this summer to join London Welsh owed something to his English heritage, with all four of his grandparents being from England.
Indeed, his ‘Pop’ hailed from Plymouth and the Exiles’ away trip to Brickfields on February 1 is one he’s already looking forward to, as his parents will be making the long journey from Sydney for the occasion.
“They want to see that one especially,” said Lees, who has settled in well to life in London over the past six weeks with his partner. Lees shares with teammate Ollie Stedman in nearby Hounslow, and they’re joined a couple of nights a week by head coach Justin Burnell, while Ben West and Rob Lewis are just down the road.
“I’m enjoying training and home life, living with the boys. Justin keeps you on good terms – unless you eat his food like I have,” he said.