Pre-season. Footy is just about here, and after the Nines last week, tomorrow we get our first taste of the 80-minute variety as the Indigenous All-Stars take on the Maori All-Stars.
A far cry from the days of the “NRL All-Stars” or the “World All-Stars”, this is a game where both sides running onto the park have something to play for.
Their culture. Their heritage. Indigenous and Maori.
I won’t pretend to know exactly what it means to be part of one of those two incredible cultures, but it meant plenty to both groups last year and was a fantastic way to get the pre-season officially underway.
But this year’s match has one storyline which is sticking out from the rest. It has evolved right throughout the off-season and kept the rugby league world interested in its every twist, turn and new direction.
He could turn into one of the most talented players to grace a rugby league field, but if that’s going to happen, 2020 feels like it has to be the start of something new for the man once touted as the next Greg Inglis. Now, not only is he talked about in that discussion, he is following GI’s progression as he shifts to fullback.
The contract circus that saw him linked to half the clubs in the competition before eventually landing at the Rabbitohs is finally over, and we can focus on the footy he will produce in the upcoming season.
It’s a huge risk for Souths to pick him up as a fullback, but if it works, it’ll be the bargain of the season, given the price they ended up getting him for.
There is really no question that, given how his time at the Roosters ended, Mitchell needed a change of scenery. Souths may be the ideal fit for the talented youngster.
The issues he has struggled with throughout his NRL career have been consistency in attack, wanting to be involved in the game at all times, and some of his defensive work.
Wayne Bennett is a master at getting the best out of his players, so those first two issues should naturally improve if Mitchell puts the effort in, while the latter could determine whether he lasts the season at fullback and turns himself into a great player, rather than a good one with moments of brilliance.
It’s not as if Mitchell doesn’t have experience wearing the no.1 jersey – plenty of his junior days were spent there, and more importantly, he played most of his first top grade season at the back.
While the Roosters struggled badly that year, slumping to 15th, the signs of Mitchell as an attacking star were already there as he scored 14 tries on his way to being the Chooks’ leading try-scorer.
Defensively, though, it was another story. This is the issue Mitchell has so often had, no matter the position he plays in.
Whether it be the brain-fade penalty, the rushing off the line or being out of position and seemingly half-asleep, Mitchell has so often struggled to have the same impact in defence that his does with ball in hand.
While no one doubts his attacking ability, Mitchell, at fullback, can no longer afford to drift in and out of games either. While playing at centre doesn’t determine how a team plays, the player wearing the number one jumper can.
The 22-year-old could easily be accused of being a flat track bully – great when his team plays well, terrible when they’re not switched on. That, simply put, is a trend he must break in 2020.
Pre-season photos showing Mitchell back down at his playing weight with weeks to go before the season actually gets underway are a major positive for Souths, but one of the most talked-about players in the game needs to make the most of every opportunity to hone his craft before the season kicks off.
To some, the All-Stars match is merely a trial. To Latrell, it must serve as his first proper examination at the back, with another to come the following week in Mudgee at the Charity Shield.
With Alex Johnston also wanting to play fullback, the pressure on the man who has been thrown a chance by South Sydney will be immense, and fans will turn fast if he isn’t up to scratch.
For Mitchell, this is the season that could make or break his career, and starting it off with a big performance in a jersey representing his culture and heritage would be the ideal way to start.
He has all the tools and potential to succeed. Now we get to find out if that can be a reality.
Some of you may have noticed that I have been absent from The Roar for some months. Unfortunately, my time as part of the site’s in-house editorial staff came to its conclusion at the end of last year, but I’m looking forward to being part of the rugby league expert team this season and continuing contributing on the site.
And who knows, I might just pop up with the occasional live blog throughout the season for old times sake.
Now, bring on the footy. Oh, and a preview series. Look out for that getting underway next week.