Somewhat puzzling news broke in the lead-up to the announcement of the NSW Blues team.
The man who is arguably the best centre in rugby league was about to be axed for State of Origin 2.
Unless he pulled some something very special out of the bag against Canterbury, the selectors were putting a red line through his name.
It is always curious that the rugby league media have the word on team selections days before the announcement but that’s another article for another day.
Like many, I didn’t believe that Brad Fittler and his offsiders would actually go through with Mitchell’s omission. After scoring a double against a hapless Bulldogs it seemed he would scrape through, albeit with a warning shot that he needed to be at his devastating best against the Queenslanders.
Fittler, under pressure after the first game loss, has found the big red panic button. After making seven changes – some admittedly forced due to injuries – the usually jovial coach is now facing the reality of a series and a potential job loss if things don’t go well in Perth.
There is no question that Mitchell’s form has been better than he is showing at the moment. As Freddy put it, he didn’t “meet expectations” in the game at Suncorp.
Though he scored twice on the weekend, they were tries that any NRL centre worth their salt would have executed without difficulty. At seven runs for 71 metres against the Bulldogs, the big centre could get more involved and do better given his ability.
Surely there was scope to give him another shot in Perth based on the potential threat he provides in attack and what he brought to the arena last series?
Just six weeks ago Latrell absolutely terrorised his Wests Tigers opposite Esan Marsters, a New Zealand international. It was a three-try, two try-assist haul that was described as a masterclass and brought further comparisons to the recently retired Greg Inglis.
That form is bubbling under the surface waiting to reappear. A do-or-die match against the Maroons over the other side of Australia may well have been the perfect moment for that to happen.
It appears Fittler doesn’t have the desire or the patience to give him another chance to retrieve his best form.
Instead we will see Canberra’s Jack Wighton line up in his centre position. Wighton is a quality player and a solid defender who will give his all for NSW but he doesn’t pose the same threat to the Maroons that Mitchell brings.
Kevin Walters and Queensland centre Will Chambers will be relieved that they don’t have to deal with Latrell on Sunday. Mitchell’s size, speed and ability to anticipate an opportunity means he provides a headache for any opposition defence.
It is not hard to gauge which side of the fence the Queensland coach sits on when it comes to loyalty in selections.
“We’ve been very loyal. I have a great belief in this team and the only changes we’ve had have been forced,” Walters told journalists after picking his side for Game 2.
Josh Morris, who by all accounts did meet expectations after defending well and scoring the Blues’ first try, was also dropped and Tom Trbojevic has come into the side.
Trbojevic was expected to be there – he is too good a player not to be – but it was thought he would be selected as a winger after Cotric picked up an injury.
NSW have gone for a new combination, gambling on two players that don’t play centre for their club. It is a short lead-in to the game that includes a flight to Perth, meaning only a few training sessions at best. The modern-day rugby league centre has arguably the most difficult defensive role in the team in terms of communication and decision-making.
The Queensland coach and his coach whisperer Bradley Charles Stubbs will be quietly chortling at the way NSW have reacted with the jitters after a four-point loss in the first game.
If a Wighton pass doesn’t get intercepted by Dane Gagai the result could have easily gone the other way and I suspect Mitchell, Josh Morris, Angus Crichton and Cody Walker would have picked up another blue tracksuit.
On the other hand, Cameron Munster was unstoppable against Newcastle on the weekend and is emerging as one of the game’s superstars. He has that perceived extra time that only the classiest players possess.
Along with that other freakish talent, Kalyn Ponga, he is ensuring that Queensland aren’t missing the Thurstons, Slaters and Cronks as much as they might.
If Queensland win on Sunday night you can bet that Munster and Ponga have played a big part in the victory. They both have the ability to create opportunities when there is seemingly nothing on.
New South Wales will rely heavily on James Tedesco to provide the same for the Blues with Mitchell absent.
Daniel Saifiti and Dale Finucane are solid picks based on good club form. James Maloney will bring leadership, experience and a bit of mongrel to the side. Wade Graham will add a bit of the X-factor off the bench. Blake Ferguson is a big body that can cart the ball up strongly from his own end.
Since the teams have been announced, the odds have shortened on a Queensland series victory. The betting public are not convinced that Fittler has pulled the right rein with selection.
I have this sinking feeling that this team won’t be strong enough to hold out the marauding Maroons in Perth.
The 2019 Origin series is now in danger of being recorded as Freddy’s fiasco.
As a Blues fan, I hope not.