You don’t need me to tell you that Latrell Mitchell is one of the most polarising players in the game.
Souths fans love him and in their eyes he can do no wrong, while many fans of other clubs don’t like his arrogance or aggression, particularly after the Joseph Manu incident late last year.
Whichever side of the Mitchell fence you sit on, though, you can’t deny his freakish ability.
You only need to cast your mind back as far as Origin 1 and 2 last year where he dominated the opposition, and every NSW supporter was suddenly a staunch Mitchell fan, while the Queensland brigade just had to look away as he destroyed the Maroons.
Put simply, no other player can emulate what he brings to the game – the destructive running power of a forward, the silky passing skills of a back, big-hitting defence, a mix of arrogance and self-belief, speed and footwork, the ability to break tackles seemingly at will, goal kicking, the long-range field goal, and great game vision.
In many ways, he’s the complete footballing package.
The problem for me, though, is that Mitchell is just not a very good fullback, and this was highlighted for all to see in Souths’ loss to Penrith on Friday night. His mediocre performance was in stark contrast to that of his opponent Dylan Edwards, who excelled in all of the key roles for the modern fullback, including:
• Making the extra man in the back line in attack
• On-line defence in his own red zone
• Organising the defence in front of him
• Taking the increasingly difficult high balls
• Bringing the ball off his own line
• Cover defending the edges
• Providing another attacking option around the ruck
That’s a lot on just one player’s plate, and no wonder the top-shelf fullbacks demand big dollars. The role these days requires that the No.1 be the fittest man in the team as he is going to cover the most distance, whether with or without the ball, week in and week out.
Mitchell just isn’t fit enough for the demands of the fullback role. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, he just doesn’t have the right body type for the role, the same as George Rose was never considered for a stint on the wing.
Mitchell is 193 centimetres tall and lists his weight at 102 kilograms, which is laughable, as he has to be way closer to 110 than 100. He’s a big, powerful man, but he has neither the acceleration nor the aerobic fitness to play fullback for 80 minutes, and it’s an 80-minute assignment.
But whatever his failings at fullback, Mitchell is probably the best centre in the game, and will probably find himself there both for NSW and Australia later in the year. I can’t really see a scenario where either Brad Fittler or Mal Meninga would hand Mitchell the No.1 jersey.
Mitchell looked disappointed with his own efforts at times on Friday night and his head went down on more than one occasion. He’s a player who thrives on confidence, and the more he plays at the back, the more danger there is that he’ll lose some of that swagger as time goes on.
Jason Demetriou was himself a former centre, so he should be able to identify Mitchell’s best role, not only for himself, but also the team. I believe that Mitchell should be at left centre alongside Cody Walker and Alex Johnston, and Blake Taaffe at the back.
From a broader perspective, I just don’t understand the preference of the fullback position over the centre position. Some of the best attacking players in the game in recent years have made the centre position their own, including Josh Morris and Joseph Manu from the Roosters, Souths Dane Gagai, Justin Olam from the Storm, Bradman Best from Newcastle, and Stephen Crichton and Matt Burton from Penrith.
If Souths persist in playing Mitchell out of his natural and best position, they risk turning one of their best assets into a liability.