“Entitled”, said Phil Rothfield in the Daily Telegraph. “Insulted” and “miffed”, suggested Danny Weidler. “In limbo”, claimed the Mole.
All is not well with Latrell Mitchell, and things took a dramatic turn on Tuesday when the Sydney Roosters put out a short but direct statement announcing the club had retracted an offer thought to be worth $800,000 a year to keep the superstar centre beyond 2020. Coach Trent Robinson, for so long Mitchell’s mentor, is said to have delivered the news personally.
Speculation has swirled for months that those in the player’s ear, including a new agent, have convinced him that he’s worth $1 million plus. Reports said he had already begun to test the market before the November 1 deadline, meeting Bulldogs officials and infuriating the Roosters hierarchy – a claim that was effectively confirmed by yesterday’s statement.
So it might be the off-season for the NRL, but it’s open season on the young star when it comes to speculation and opinion. Depending on who you listen to, the Bulldogs are either in prime position, or have gone cold on the idea. The Tigers could be in the frame. The Panthers and Knights have ruled him out. The Rabbitohs are keeping quiet, for now.
It’s certainly a strong stance from the back-to-back premiers, who seem intent on underlining the old adage that no player is bigger than the club. But was forcing the issue the right call, or will the loss of patience prove an irreconcilable mistake that ultimately gift-wraps free-scoring Mitchell for a rival, maybe even as early as next season?
Reaction on social media suggests the majority of the Chooks’ fan base is lining up behind Robinson and owner Nick Politis. That combination has done more than enough to earn unwavering trust, after all.
You can follow their logic. $800,000 a year would make the 22-year-old the highest paid centre in the game, with a two-year term giving him the opportunity to keep improving and show he’s worth even more as he enters the prime of his career.
Robinson evangelises relentlessly about the strength of the club’s values. Openly affronted when assistant Adam O’Brien accepted the Knights’ head coaching role in August, you can imagine the reaction to Mitchell’s perceived disloyalty in meeting Belmore officials. The Roosters will point to the painless retention of fellow centre Joey Manu, who is on a similar trajectory, as an example of how business should be done.
For all the talk of Politis’ salary sombrero, the Bondi club still faces a balancing act. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Siua Taukeiaho, coming off stand-out seasons, are off contract next term. Young guns Sam Verrills and Nat Butcher deserve upgrades, while co-captain Jake Friend and veteran winger Brett Morris are other notables only tied until 2020.
The cap space from Cooper Cronk’s retirement will only go so far, so throwing too much at Mitchell could force other important players to move on.
Lastly, convention dictates that clubs simply do not pay seven figures for centres, who do not get the same ball time as playmakers, fullbacks or forward battering rams. Critics say this is particularly true of Mitchell, who has been accused of drifting in and out all season and failing to turn up in big games including Origin 1, the grand final and recent internationals.
But for all of that, you can also argue that Mitchell attracts so much scrutiny because he is no ordinary centre. Far from it.
Still just 22, he is one of the few genuine stars in the NRL – a player whose talent surpasses the confines of the game and breaks into the mainstream. Quite simply, he puts bums on seats. Knowing he might do something electrifying is the difference between a part-time fan buying a ticket over watching at home. He is a factor in all-important membership renewals.
What makes a young fan fall in love with league over a rival code. How do you put a value on that?
This is a player who, despite some patchy form, won Dally M centre of the year, easily finished as the competition’s top scorer, regularly outscored opponents on his own at the SCG and won a second straight premiership. His combinations on the Roosters’ left edge are crucial to the most devastating attacking unit around, not to mention being the team’s primary goal-kicker. Not a bad list of achievements for a player whose best years are probably still ahead.
And as much as the media questions his attitude, there is just as much to suggest Mitchell is growing into a positive role model, particularly for the Indigenous community. He is deeply connected to his roots, aware of what he represents and is admirably vocal about racial inequality and abuse, particularly on social media. He is also a young father and open about wanting to provide as much as he can for his kids – something it’s difficult to criticise without standing in his shoes.
But with the Tricolours having pulled the plug, a reconciliation between player and club looks a long way off. However it plays out, Mitchell will continue to attract headlines and column inches this summer, few of which are likely to make happy reading for Roosters fans.