Mitchell dropped the ball cold and stayed on the ground like he had just been hit. Replays showed Lachlan Croker's boot missed him. Did…
‘If’ is the most dangerous word in the dictionary. Full of false promises and unrealised potential, if represents the promise of a brighter future in blindness to reality.
If I did not have that last cocktail on Thursday I wouldn’t have hurled that kebab at three am. If I did not place daily 13-leg NBA multis I would have more money. If I met Dua Lipa then maybe she would realise how great I am.
If. If. If.
If is a favourite of NRL fans heading into the season. The generic phrases are fed to the media. A certain player has had his best preseason in years. The boys are training the house down.
It allows fans to dream of the if. What if we put it together this year? What if those flashes of form turn into something more permanent? What if we stay healthy for the year?
Health is one of the main concerns for teams and their star players. In particular, three clubs and their star fullbacks who always have an if hanging over their heads: Latrell Mitchell; Tom Trbojevic; and Ryan Papenhuyzen.
All when healthy are among the elite players in the competition. They dazzle and delight with moments of brilliance that are all too fleeting, derailed by another suspension or injury. Fans’ hopes of premiership glory are eviscerated with a single injury, forcing them to utter one word – if.
If he could stay healthy we would have a chance, if he could get his head right he would be the best player in the world. All three players have such tantalising ability that your club cannot consider letting them go. Because what if they go to another club and deliver? That’s the if that keeps you waiting for a day that may not come.
Let’s take a closer look at the games played by each of the players for the last three years:
Papenhuyzen and Trbojevic’s numbers are particularly alarming. They average twelve games a year for the last three seasons, missing half the available games.
When considering the space they occupy in the salary cap, with Papenhuyzen and Trbojevic on a reported $800,000 and $1.1 million respectively, it is easy to see the burden their injuries have had on their teams.
Melbourne’s spine players all are on significant contracts, meaning there is a lack of depth across the squad. This is particularly apparent when looking at their forward pack, with the losses of the experienced Bromwich brothers and Felise Kaufusi due to salary cap pressure.
This has left their forward pack light on quality which was glaring in their final losses last year against Brisbane and Penrith.
The focus on the spine is understandable considering the quality of the players, but only if they play. Papenhuyzen’s predicament is unique to the others in the fact Melbourne already has a readymade replacement in the squad by way of Sua Faalogo.
No other player, perhaps outside of Kalyn Ponga, has as much influence over their team’s fate as Tom Trbojevic. Manly are mediocre without him and a finals team with him. Their record over the last three seasons with him in the side is 22 wins from 37 matches, compared to 12 wins from 35 matches without him.
Trbojevic has injured his hamstring on four separate occasions, suggesting a more systemic issue. Such is the state of his health there seemed to be a silver lining in his pec injury from last season, with the thinking being ‘at least it wasn’t his hamstring’.
Mitchell’s issues are not just injury-related – he’s been suspended for eleven games over the past three years. Quite difficult to do considering fullbacks make the least number of tackles per game. In fact, the fullback with the most missed games due to suspension outside of Latrell over the three years is Reece Walsh, who missed five.
Souths also made the grand final in 2021 without him due to one of these suspensions, although I am not for one second suggesting Blake Taaffe was a better alternative. In their biggest game last year against Newcastle he committed three errors and cheap-shotted Tyson Frizell, leading to him being suspended for a final round do-or-die clash against his former team the Sydney Roosters. They lost that game.
So why persist with them?
Look no further than Latrell’s opposite number that day, Kalyn Ponga. While he had his own availability issues, his run of form to lead the Knights to the finals, culminating in the Dally M and rivalling other famous runs such as Jarryd Hayne in 2009 or Ben Barba in 2012.
Mitchell, Papenhuyzen and Trbojevic have shown the ability to hit those heights, with Trbojevic doing so in 2021 when he won the Dally M Medal. His run of form led to the most absurd individual statistical output of recent memory with 28 tries and 28 try assists. Papenhuyzen won the 2020 Clive Churchill Medal along with the premiership, while Mitchell won two premierships with the Sydney Roosters, albeit at centre.
There lies the conundrum. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Ponga’s form last year has Newcastle fans feeling optimistic, forgetting the months early when his career was in jeopardy. Manly, Melbourne, and Rabbitohs fans are hoping the same in return, that if their star fullbacks put together enough games, they can go a couple of steps further and lead their team to the premiership.
But it is the hope that kills them. Availability is the most important skill, a skill these players have not yet mastered.
Maybe this year is the year the stars align, that they all play consistent football. Or, as it has been in the past, they are plagued by injuries, leaving their teams pondering what could have been.
The promises of the pre-season are not fulfilled, leading to fans looking ahead, uttering the same word heading into next season …