Indigenous coach Laurie Daley says Latrell Mitchell’s All-Stars fullback audition was successful despite the x-factor finding himself back in the centres.
The stage was set for an epic fullback battle when NSW centre Mitchell lined up against Maori No.1 Kalyn Ponga in Saturday’s All-Stars clash after switching to the custodian role following his off-season move to South Sydney.
Ponga appeared to have the last laugh after chiming into the Maori’s 30-16 win with former Sydney Roosters star Mitchell only showing flashes of brilliance at No.1 before being moved back to his familiar three-quarter role in the second half.
However, Daley said he had seen enough to convince him Mitchell would be a success at fullback in the 2020 NRL season.
“We certainly weren’t going to get the finished product (on Saturday night) – he’s still learning the role,” Daley said.
“He will get better as the season goes on. He had some nice touches.”
Indeed he did.
Mitchell produced a sublime flick pass for Josh Addo-Carr when returning the ball in the 26th minute that looked to have set the Melbourne flyer try-bound, only for the winger to spill the ball.
And in the second half, Mitchell’s clever grubber behind the Maori defensive line forced a dropout.
Arguably in defence he was even more impressive, pulling off two try-saving tackles on Ponga (35th minute) and two-try man of the match Brandon Smith (56th).
But eyebrows were raised when he spent a second-half stint back in the centres with Alex Johnston slotted into fullback by Daley.
The Indigenous mentor said it was not a slight on Mitchell’s fullback audition, just a way to cope with their injury toll that claimed Wade Graham (ankle), Tyrone Roberts (ankle), Josh Kerr (knee) and Chris Smith (knee).
“I thought AJ (Johnston) was playing some good football and wanted to give him an opportunity in the No.1 and I wanted to give Latrell a spell because he was puffing a bit – I wanted to get him off,” said Daley.
“And with the injuries we had, Alex was going well so I didn’t want to take him out of there, just move Latrell back to left centre.”
Besides, Daley admitted Mitchell wasn’t handed any favours in his much-anticipated run in the No.1 jersey.
“It was hard for him to get involved in the game. The ruck speed wasn’t fast,” he said.
“And every time we went wide we sort of had to turn the ball back in the middle, or we just didn’t have enough numbers pushing.”
In the end, Mitchell ran 56m, had six tackle breaks, 61 kicking metres and one forced dropout.