July 20, 2024

‘He belongs on the big stage’: Latrell Mitchell returns with point to prove in Origin II

Player’s imposing frame, ball-playing nous, powerful running threat and giant personality give Blues a boost before MCG clash

In front of what is set to be rugby league’s biggest crowd in at least six years, and with a State of Origin series on the line, the lights could not be any brighter. One name has dominated discussion in the lead-up to Wednesday’s game two in Melbourne, one rugby league’s higher powers clearly felt the game’s grandest stage could not do without.

The much-adored – and maligned – Latrell Mitchell, Souths fullback and Indigenous All Stars captain, has been recalled to the Origin cauldron for the first time since 2021 as a replacement for the New South Wales centre Joseph Sua’ali’i. Mitchell was overlooked by the Blues’ new coach, Michael Maguire, for the first game, and missed the series in the previous two years due to injury. He will return to the centre position from where he helped NSW win the shield in 2018, 2019 and 2021.

he former NSW coach and five-eighth Laurie Daley still believes Mitchell was made for this arena. “I’m expecting him to bring confidence to the team and a confidence that he knows he belongs on the big stage,” Daley said.

Mitchell’s form for Souths, playing at fullback, has been up and down, and he has missed four matches in 2024 due to suspension. Yet Sua’ali’i’s send-off and suspension from his high shot on Reece Walsh in the series opener opened the door for a much-anticipated comeback.

“He will have the attitude that, ‘Yeah, I’m here, and I’m ready to go, why didn’t you pick me in game one?’, Daley said. “I think he’s going to have one of that style of performance – ‘Yeah, why was it ever in doubt, why wasn’t I selected?’”

Despite his profile, the 27-year-old has been largely kept away from media obligations in the past week, and his position in the team remains far from secure. Yet Mitchell’s imposing frame, ball-playing nous, powerful running threat and giant personality have nonetheless dominated the match’s buildup.

The Maroons’ opposing centre, Valentine Holmes, pledged last week to get in the face of Mitchell, prompting the former NSW halfback Andrew Johns to suggest of the Blues’ opposition the Souths No 1 was “in their heads”.

On Monday the Maroons’ five-eighth, Tom Dearden, and hooker, Ben Hunt, both acknowledged Mitchell’s threat, but Hunt challenged Johns’ assessment. “He hasn’t got into our heads at all,” he said. “We have done preparation on him, like you would on any good player.”

After a Monday training session, the Blues’ five-eighth, Jarome Luai, said Mitchell was ready to rip into Queensland. “Fucking oath, man,” he said. “That’s the vibe he’s brought into camp. I think if he’s out there, automatically you have to think about him and what he can do. As an individual, there are only a few players as gifted as that. If he turns up ready to rock, look out.”

Given his form for Souths and two-year absence from Origin, as well as the centre position, Mitchell’s impact is far from guaranteed.

“He’ll have to, not get his bearings, but he’ll have to settle into that centre position,” Daley said. “The thing he’ll have to get used to is how he defends on that left edge and in particular when Reece Walsh is sweeping out the back, how he’s going to handle that. But other than that, when he gets the early ball and they put on some set pieces for him, he’ll be dangerous.”

Daley was part of the Blues team that defeated the Maroons in State of Origin’s first visit to the MCG in 1994. His opposite captain, Mal Meninga, was at Melbourne’s Tram Museum on Monday to help promote Wednesday’s game and the 30th anniversary of the historic MCG clash, attended by a record crowd of more than 87,000.

Meninga – who has selected Mitchell in his role as coach of the Kangaroos – said he was confident the former Roosters centre would have an impact. “There’s no doubt he mentally has a strong mindset around making a difference in their side, it’s not even about proving a point,” he said.

In his only media appearance, last week from the NSW camp in the Blue Mountains, Mitchell appeared resolute. “I think I deserve to be here,” he said. “It’s my arena.”

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