One of Australian rugby league’s most polarising players in modern times brought down the curtain on his career on the weekend and still no one can agree on Mitchell Pearce.
After a tick under 400 games at the top level in a career spanning 17 seasons, the 34-year-old halfback has hung up his boots after his Catalans Dragons went down to Wigan in the Super League Grand Final.
Feelers were put out by the Wests Tigers and the Sydney Roosters about a potential NRL swansong in 2024 but the former NSW playmaker has had enough.
He had given the French side strong service over the past two seasons but was hampered by an injury in his final match as the Warriors grinded their way to a 10-2 triumph.
Before Jarome Luai held the mantle for the NRL playmaker who gets all tongues wagging, Pearce’s efforts for the Roosters and NSW in particular would generate opinion from the rugby league cognoscenti from under-rated star to trumped-up plodder.
Looking at a career now in its totality, it’s not easy to answer many of the questions which have floated around the rugby league discourse since he made his debut as a precocious 17-year-old.
He’s spent almost half his time on this planet as a professional rugby league player and as the son of an all-time great in Balmain legend Wayne Pearce, he has been in the spotlight since well before he made his debut for the Roosters.
It’s hard to be definitive when answering this one. When he came into first grade, media and fans alike combined famous bloodlines with enormous potential and came up with the greatest of expectations.
Pearce played with the maturity of a seasoned professional in a rebuilding Roosters side which had said farewell to most of the players who had taken them to four Grand Finals in five years just a few seasons earlier.
He was thrust into the Origin furnace well before he was ready for a deciding game three in 2008 as the Blues tried to overturn a 30-0 flogging to regain the shield.
Pearce made a decent fist of his debut but in what became a theme of his Origin career, the Blues were unable to overcome Queensland’s emerging golden generation.
On the club scene, Pearce maintained a consistently high standard at the Roosters, rarely missed a game but never turned out to be the out and out superstar that was perhaps an unfair burden placed on his shoulders.
He was a solid halfback who worked well in a team environment, not a game’s best player like today’s clear No.1 playmaker in Nathan Cleary, who could slot into any side and dominate.
Pearce was crucial in the Roosters’ rise to the 2013 premiership victory but it was his opposite number, Daly Cherry-Evans, who was awarded the Clive Churchill Medal despite the 26-18 scoreline against his Manly side.
And when recollections are raised about that Roosters side, most people point to the arrival of Trent Robinson as coach paying instant dividends or Sonny Bill Williams’ impact after his first stint with the All Blacks in changing the team’s culture.
Yes and no. The halfback owns the result in Origin is the theory of Ricky Stuart, who has lived it as a player and espoused it as a coach.
But for Pearce, he was pretty much always up against a talent deficit when he ran out for the Blues 19 times over seven series.
The ongoing frustration for NSW fans was not so much that the Maroons continued to have their measure for nine straight years, it was that usually the Blues contributed to their own demise.
Too often the Blues would take wrong options with the game on the line while the likes of Johnathan Thurston, Darren Lockyer, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith would manage the situation astutely while their opponents did the opposite.
In the 13 losses that Pearce suffered in a sky-blue jersey, eight of them were by eight points or less.
Fittingly for Pearce, after going through enough pain at Origin level to last three careers, his NSW career came full circle when he returned for the game-three decider of the 2019 series when Cleary was injured and played his part as the Blues did a Queensland on the Maroons by sealing the series with a last-minute try to James Tedesco.
This was often the case. He was embroiled in a string of off-field incidents and while most of them were relatively low on the rugby league atrocity scale, it had the cumulative effect of threatening his career when he should have been at his peak.
Pearce was banned by the NRL for 12 matches at the start of the 2016 season for his infamous Australia Day bender which attracted a cavalcade of headlines.
It derailed what should have been a promising Roosters season (the finished second last with a 6-18 record) and cost him three Blues jerseys.
But it was the wake-up call he needed. After getting professional treatment to deal with his problems with alcohol, it turned his career and life around.
In a word, no. When the Roosters made the cut-throat call to bring Cooper Cronk to the club for the 2018 season and make Pearce their bench utility, it was a fork in the road moment for a player who had only worn the red, white and blue.
He could have stuck around and played second fiddle to Cronk but for a 28-year-old halfback who had already won a Grand Final and represented his state, spending two years as a back-up while Cronk called the shots was a dramatic demotion despite the club’s attempts to sugarcoat their decision.
Pearce could have won another two premiership rings if he stuck around but you can’t blame the guy for rejecting the move.
After going perilously close to signing with Cronulla, he opted for a fresh start with Newcastle.
And his four years at the Knights helped turn that club around after three straight wooden spoons.
They were never going to be true title contenders with the squad they had around Pearce but now with a maturity on and off the field to match his resume, his leadership skills were equally as important as his contributions as a player.