The belief that star centre Latrell Mitchell would get dropped from the NSW Blues team for State of Origin 2 started gaining momentum on Saturday, and then the bombshell was confirmed just after 6pm on Sunday night.
There was widespread surprise at the decision, followed by bewilderment, followed by anger. It’s a process I call ‘The Three Stages of Origin Selection Shock’. We’ve experienced it before, and we’ll experience it again, yet that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.
In the case of Mitchell – who was being called the best player in the world just a few weeks ago – it most certainly is a little difficult to deal with or understand. However, in hindsight, the signs were there that Mitchell was in the crosshairs as early as Game 1, and those signs start and finish with one man.
Phil ‘Gus’ Gould.
In commentary for Origin 1 in Brisbane, Gould slammed Mitchell early, often and repeatedly. Granted, Mitchell did not have a great game, but Gould also has a history of kicking a point to death when he commentates, often one which seems preconceived.
So many times in the past, I’ve heard Gould make a point in a game and then use every opportunity presented to him as evidence that he’s right. It’s called confirmation bias, and Gould is the king of it.
Often, the evidence doesn’t even support his point. A few seasons ago, in a game against the Storm, he repeatedly talked about the Bulldogs’ looking fatigued, how they appeared dead on their feet, and that Melbourne would run over the top of them. The Dogs actually looked pretty energetic and ended up finishing the game strongly, upsetting the Storm. So much for your heavily laboured point, Gus.
Back to Origin 1, and Gus repeatedly said Mitchell didn’t look “in” to the game, and that something was wrong with him.
Gus has forgotten more about rugby league than I know, so I’m not doubting his knowledge. If he was seeing something I wasn’t, that’s what he’s paid to do. Yet I simply thought Mitchell was having a sub-par game, and in one instance when he slipped in attack, I wasn’t buying Gould’s assertion that something mysterious was afoot, just because “the Mitchell we know would have attacked the defence”.
It seemed to me that Gus was creating the narrative, rather than analysing it.
Yet that was nothing compared to what happened post-game.
In his article in the Sydney Morning Herald on June 8, Gould savaged Mitchell.
“This young man looks very distracted at the moment. His club football has been poor for more than a month after some scintillating performances early in the season. His lazy efforts of late are now becoming a distraction to his teammates.
“Honestly, as ridiculous as it sounds, you couldn’t possibly pick Mitchell for Origin 2 given his current frame of mind.
“I don’t know this kid. I’ve only shaken his hand once. I don’t know what’s going on in his life. But blind Freddy can see his head isn’t into football. Injury, personal trauma, family issues, contract talks, outside influences, it could be a combination of a number of things.”
Tell us what you really think, Gus. And the key word there is “think”, because Gould admits at the end that he’s just speculating, rather than actually knowing.
Then on Saturday night, Gould’s Sunday column was released, in which he expressed his dismay that he thinks the series is already over, and all but told us that Mitchell would be getting dropped the next day.
It seemed fairly obvious at that point that the centre would not be named in the Blues team, and I tweeted as much straight away:
I read into this that Latrell Mitchell is getting dropped tomorrow when the Blues name their team. https://t.co/xtoqBuarUZ
— Ryan O'Connell (@RyanOak) June 15, 2019
Gould clearly knew that Mitchell was getting the chop, and it’s not surprising considering his tight relationship with NSW coach Brad Fittler.
Would it really be surprising if Fittler was taking Gould’s advice on Mitchell? He trusts Gould’s opinion, and when it came to the Roosters centre, it was abundantly clear exactly what Gus’s opinion was.
It did seem like Mitchell’s performance in Brisbane was not being allowed to be put down as just one bad game, but rather something more. Not only had Gus alluded to this, but Fittler himself said the day after the opening Origin encounter: “There always seems to be something other than footy… he obviously needs to work on his motivation.”
Fittler was none-too-subtly saying that Mitchell wasn’t ready for first game of the series.
The trouble is, Mitchell’s preparation for Origin 1 has been defended by both Blues advisor Greg Alexander (on NRL360), and the team’s prop David Klemmer (on The Matty Johns Show), who both said the young star was good in camp and didn’t appear distracted.
During the team announcement on Sunday night, Fittler himself confirmed that Mitchell’s lead-in to Origin 1 wasn’t an issue: “His training was great… but watching his footy for the Roosters and the game up at Suncorp… we most probably needed more energy, more input into the game.”
Mitchell’s club coach, Trent Robinson, had actually defended him after Fittler had earlier said the Roosters were also unhappy with Mitchell: “There’s been a bit of talk about how we’ve felt about it too, which is, pardon the French, a load of crap.”
Roosters teammate Cooper Cronk also leapt to Mitchell’s defence: “Latrell’s absolutely fine the way he is, (he had) one bad game and I think if we recall he had the best game that anyone’s ever seen about three weeks prior to that.
“If I was a Queenslander I wouldn’t want him to be picked.”
So what the hell is going on?
Mitchell wasn’t great in Origin 1, and though I won’t agree with the many that say he looked disinterested, he certainly made some poor – if not selfish – reads in defence. But it’s one freaking game. If one poor Origin game gets you dropped now, there are a few other players (and one in particular) who should have been dumped as well.
So we have a scenario in which Mitchell is being dropped for one bad game – which is insane – or Gus’s speculation that something is wrong with Mitchell is being taken as gospel, with little evidence to back it up, other than a poor showing in Origin 1.
Either way, the decision appears a misguided one.
Perhaps the full story hasn’t come out.
Or perhaps Gus Gould got Latrell Mitchell dropped.