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Opinion

'Energiser Bunny' Latrell’s return doesn’t mean rudderless Rabbitohs will suddenly regain their mojo

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Expert
29th June, 2022
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Latrell Mitchell has the potential to deliver a Jarryd Hayne style late-season purple patch to lift the Rabbitohs into title contention.

He could also be a game-changer, a series-decider even, for NSW in Origin III.

Now that he has shed a few kilos to be as fit as he’s been for a few years, these scenarios are both possible.

But he’s played precious little football in recent times.

Mitchell has suited up for just 11 matches with the Rabbitohs and Origin III last season over the past 12 months, mainly due to the six-match ban for a high shot on Roosters centre Joey Manu and the hamstring tear which has kept him out of action since Round 5 on April 9. 

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After a bout of COVID-19 following his trip to the US for “reconditioning” on his hamstring and fitness delayed his return to the playing field another couple of weeks, he will line up in the No.1 jersey for South Sydney on Saturday night at Accor Stadium against Parramatta.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 13: Latrell Mitchell of the Rabbitohs during a South Sydney NRL training session at Redfern Oval on June 13, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Latrell Mitchell during a South Sydney training session at Redfern Oval on June 13. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

The Rabbitohs are mired in mid-table mediocrity at seventh spot with a 7-7 record and their slide from making the grand final last year can be largely attributed to the absence of the player who wore the No.7 jersey, Adam Reynolds.  

Souths are hoping Mitchell can be the catalyst for a surge in the second half of the season, similar to Parramatta in 2009 when Hayne enjoyed an amazing run of performances to take the Eels from well outside the top eight to a Grand Final defeat to a Melbourne team which was eventually discovered to have been rorting the salary cap.

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In his three full appearances at the start of the year plus the 14-minute stint against the Dragons before his hamstring went on him, he only cracked 100 running metres in a game once.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 28: Latrell Mitchell of the Rabbitohs gestures during a South Sydney Rabbitohs NRL training session at Redfern Oval on June 28, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Latrell Mitchell at Rabbitohs training on Tuesday. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

The 25-year-old international scored a couple of tries and broke 14 tackles, while conjuring up six line break assists, including two which led to tries.

This kind of output won’t give the Bunnies the impetus they need to shake off the doldrums associated with the absence of Reynolds’ attacking spark.

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Five-eighth Cody Walker’s form this season has been up and down while rookie halfback Lachlan Ilias has been finding his feet but after playing every game in his debut year, he was noticeably flat in their most recent outing against the Dragons in Wollongong and was controversially hooked by first-year coach Jason Demetriou before half-time.

Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

The Reynolds-less Rabbitohs of 2022 are reminiscent of Canberra in the 1990s whenever Ricky Stuart was absent. 

Stuart was the conductor of an extremely talented orchestra but whenever he was injured and particularly when he left for Canterbury at the end of his career, the Raiders were never the same even though they had Laurie Daley, Brett Mullins, Mal Meninga, Steve Walters, Bradley Clyde and Glenn Lazarus on the roster.

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And that’s not to say the Rabbitohs necessarily did the wrong thing by letting Reynolds leave for Brisbane.

They couldn’t keep 30-plus halves together for eternity and sacrifice the development of the likes of Ilias and Blake Taaffe but the loss of Reynolds looks to have at least temporarily closed off their premiership window.

The Bunnies are buoyant for their crucial clash with the Eels now that Mitchell is giving them star power from the back. 

Front-rower Tevita Tatola on Tuesday declared Mitchell was “the fittest I’ve ever seen him”.

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“He’s looking in good shape, he’s getting around the park really well, and his talk is immense at the moment.

“Everyone’s pretty keen to have him out there and we’re looking forward to him playing as well.

“He’s probably the energy bunny that we sort of need. We’re all just really keen for him to get back out there and play with him.”

One area where Mitchell certainly needs to improve is his goal-kicking.

In his final three seasons at the Roosters, he averaged 82%, 77% and 75% to be one of the elite marksmen in the NRL but since he’s arrived at Souths, taking a back seat to Reynolds in this department for 2020 and ’21, his strike rate is a paltry 60% with only 18 successful shots from 30 attempts.

The Rabbitohs are far from guaranteed to make the playoffs for what would be a fifth straight year and ninth time in the space of 11 seasons which includes the drought-breaking 2014 premiership win.

They face the Eels twice in the closing 10 rounds as well as Penrith, Cronulla, Melbourne, North Queensland and the Roosters.

On current form they’ll be lucky to scrape into the eight and even if they do, it’s a fair chance they’ll just be making up the numbers.

Matt Burton

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

As for Mitchell’s Origin chances, the Blues are faced with an unusual dilemma for Origin III in Brisbane on July 13.

In Mitchell, impressive debutant Matt Burton and Jack Wighton, arguably their best player in game one, they have three players who excel at left centre.

However, the two players who have been given a run on the right side – Kotoni Staggs and Stephen Crichton – have been less impressive.

Blues coach Brad Fittler will be closely monitoring Mitchell and Wighton on club duty this weekend before announcing his 22-man squad on Sunday night. 

There’s a fair chance he will switch one of the left-side specialists to right centre while Burton or Wighton could end up as a bench utility given their versatility.

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