You would have been forgiven for doubting Latrell Mitchell in the later stages of South Sydney’s heartbreaking loss to Melbourne.
It had been a difficult 75 minutes on return for Mitchell and for South Sydney in general – the Rabbitohs look disjointed and slow, and incapable of getting their famous left side firing.
But once Souths got a sniff through two tries Mitchell had a big hand in creating, he was always going to feature in the result.
He has a knack for the spotlight, the big play, the match-winner. It’s not as though Mitchell just coasts through games and waits for those moments. He tried hard throughout the match, and kept trying even when things weren’t working.
When his three conversions sprayed wide, it was reasonable to assume it just wasn’t his night. But Mitchell is an unreasonable footballer and he has so often been the hinge on which a big game swings it can’t be counted as a coincidence.
There are a handful of other players who have kicked two-point field goals. One or two have even done it in tight matches.
But it’s highly doubtful there is another player in the league who would have put the boot in from deep, with time expiring, and hit the ball as true and sweet as Mitchell.
This is just how it works for him. Things happen to Mitchell, and they happen louder and bigger than they happen to anybody else.
South Sydney went down in the end with Ryan Papenhuyzen coming up with his own fine match-winner, but the Latrell Mitchell show has had it’s first stop for 2021. From here, it will only get bigger and louder.
He fills up the rugby league field the way movie stars fill up the screen. Along with Kalyn Ponga, Nathan Cleary, James Tedesco and Tom Trbojevic, he is among the most famous players in the game.
But Mitchell is different to those other four. He inspires extreme reactions even they cannot and he lives in the limelight in a way they do not.
Ponga’s kingdom is far enough north of the Sydney fishbowl that it takes some of the heat off, while Cleary and Trbojevic enjoy similar deflection by virtue of playing so far from the heart of the city. The lights just aren’t as bright in Penrith or Manly as they are in Bondi and Redfern.
Tedesco is in the eye of the publicity storm now he is captain of the Roosters, but he is five years older than Mitchell and did not come along as quickly.
After debuting in 2012, it wasn’t until 2016 he became one of the top fullbacks in the league and it wasn’t until two years later, when he moved to Bondi, that he went from one of the best custodians in the league to the best player, full stop.
Tedesco was 25 when he became a Rooster, a year younger than Mitchell is right now. He was not thrown into the light until he was already a grown man, and he was given time to learn how to wear it. Tedesco, like most of the NRL’s biggest stars, adopted the spotlight, but Mitchell’s career was born in it and moulded by it.
In splitting his time between the Roosters and Rabbitohs, the two most glamorous and high-profile teams in Sydney and perhaps the entire league, Mitchell has always been up the front. It might be called the National Rugby League but rightly or wrongly – through the number of clubs, the number of media outlets based there and the sheer size of the city – this is still a Sydney-centric competition.
Mitchell has been in the eye of the hurricane since the second he came on the scene in the Under 20s at the Roosters. Ever since then he has inspired the most extreme of reactions, both when he shines and struggles. He is the perfect player for the social media age, a walking headline who lives on highlight reels, as well as a guaranteed traffic-mover.
Shaquai Mitchell’s story was a compelling one in the pre-season, but he was on the front page not just because of his inspirational journey to give big time footy one last go, but because he is Latrell’s brother.
There’s plenty of heat on an off-season training field, but when Latrell Mitchell is having it out with Jacob Host it becomes back page news. There are a couple of players who are better than Mitchell but nobody is bigger.
No matter what he is doing, Mitchell inspires the hottest of takes like few other players in rugby league history, no matter if he’s in a peak or a valley of his career. The ebbs and flows are so regular you can almost set your watch to them.
He was the next Greg Inglis in his first two seasons, an absurd comparison that didn’t do either man justice but did show the lofty expectations he was forced to carry, then he was lazy and lacked attention to detail when it counted after a tough showing in the Roosters 2017 preliminary final loss to the Cowboys.
He was the destroyer of worlds who beat Will Chambers so badly the Melbourne and Queensland veteran went from “best centre in the world” to “Latrell’s bunny” in the space of a year, then he had a bad attitude that had him dropped from the New South Wales side after one game in 2019.
He was the master of the big moments when he put on the try that won the Roosters the grand final against the Raiders later that year, then he was arrogant and disrespectful for the way he left the club and ended up at the Rabbitohs for 2020.
He was lackadaisical in his first few weeks with South Sydney, only to restore his reputation as the season went on. He made a glorious return to the Blues the following year and was within touching distance of Trbojevic, Cleary and Tedesco as the best player in the game when he wiped out Joseph Manu and was suspended for the rest of the season in one of the most controversial on-field incidents in years.
There are a dozen other peaks and valleys in-between – if we ran through them all piece-by-piece it’d take all weekend. Mitchell is still just 24 but he has packed a careers worth of highs and lows into seven years. No other active player has lived under such scrutiny for so long. It is no wonder he is still brash and confident with his talk – being that sure of himself is likely the only way he could have survived the heat that always seems to come down on him.
Sometimes he brings that heat upon himself. Mitchell has a temper when he plays footy, and it can drive the best and the worst of him. It allows him to dominate his opponents with a physical superiority that is so clear and powerful it almost seems like contempt.
Mitchell plays on the edge, and with his aggression he can sometimes fall right over it, like he did with the tackle on Manu, or during his run-in with Luke Garner in a win over the Tigers earlier last year.
These incidents are when Mitchell lets himself down as a player – he has a fire in him, and it makes him the great player he is but if he’s not careful it can burn the whole house down.
For fans, sport is so often about heroes and villains, black hats and white ones. Our guys are virtuous and true, those other guys are villainous scoundrels. Because of what he does on the field, and because it’s always so big regardless of whether it’s a brain snap or a moment of brilliance, Mitchell can slide between the two easier than anyone else in the game. When it comes to his play, there’s no neutrals when it comes to Latrell Mitchell. On the field, he is whatever you decide you want to see.
Off the field the equation is much simpler. Mitchell is Indigenous and fiercely proud of it – and for as much progress as we like to think we’ve made in this country, there are still plenty of people who somehow have a problem with it.
In the face of some of the racism he’s copped, especially on social media, it would be easy for Mitchell to stop speaking out and keep his head down.
Instead, he’s going the other way — being a leader for his community is something that is clearly very important to him and has been a key part of his maturity in recent years.
He has spoken up on social issues with a clear, loud voice, and the game is better for it. This is the best of Mitchell as a man, as he puts himself in positions that take far more courage than many of us could ever understand.
It’s hard to cut through the noise and the column inches and the big hits and the quick hands and the booming field goals and everything else that comes with the Latrell Mitchell experience.
As South Sydney’s season continues, the ongoing Mitchell discourse will go on as it always has with a particular focus on how Mitchell does or doesn’t thrive in a post-Adam Reynolds world.
The Rabbitohs have other things to work out beside how they go on without their former skipper – their backline is still a work in progress, and not everyone is where they need to be in the forwards.
But it feels like they won’t need to worry about Mitchell. In all likelihood, he won’t change too much himself, even if the way we think and talk and write about him will.
It will crank into overdrive for the next seven days, until Mitchell and the Rabbitohs face the Roosters again under the Friday night lights, with Mitchell at the centre of the fiercest rivalry in the league.
No man is ever any one thing but here’s something that’s always been true about Mitchell – on the field he is an extraordinarily gifted player who can just about anything he wants, either with the ball or without it, and his own recklessness the only thing that’s stopped him from joining Tedesco, Trbojevic and Cleary at the top.
For all the slings and arrows he wears, he’s still in charge of how great he’s going to be and only he knows whether the edge that makes him so dangerous is eventually going to undercut his standing in the game.
Judging by his comments in the pre-season, he’s going to do his best to avoid something like the Manu ever again while trying to keep the edge that helps make him great. It will be a delicate dance and only time will tell if that’s the right decision. He’s not going to change, but it’s easy to understand why he wouldn’t.
The way everybody sees him, the way everybody reacts to what he does or doesn’t do, it all changes so much and so quickly and so often the only thing he can be certain of is himself. That’s might why he was able to call for the ball at AAMI Park, with the game on the line after a rough night.
He didn’t become Latrell Mitchell by pretending to be something else, and when he’s Latrell Mitchell it means everybody’s looking.