“Just coming through them gates there, it’s pretty humbling,” Mitchell, 22, said. “Four years ago, I was still in high school. Didn’t know if I wanted to play NRL or not. Just for everyone in the Indigenous community, in the non-Indigenous community, and especially what the Rabbitohs do for the Indigenous community … It’s really empowering. That’s the message I want to send: that powerful message of being Indigenous.”
As his father, Matt, who also briefly played for Souths, said: “It’s a homecoming”.
One of the few people who weren’t at Redfern on Monday afternoon was Souths co-owner Russell Crowe, who had met with Mitchell and Matt at the Hollywood actor’s North Coast farm last week as the deal was being pieced together.
“A lot of Souths members and fans will agree: the signing of Latrell Mitchell may well turn out to be one of the most significant signings in the club’s history,” Crowe told the Herald. “He’s an enigmatic force on the field and a magnet for younger fans.
“Latrell Mitchell is an organic fit for our squad and our way of doing things. Where other people may choose to read negativity in his words, we read a joy, an honest confidence and a natural air of leadership.
“He comes to a stable club with the clearly defined leadership roles of CEO Blake Solly, GM of football Shane Richardson and head coach Wayne Bennett.
I’ve always come up as fullback. I was never a centre. But the possibility of playing fullback again is exciting.
“I know that the stability and straightforward manner of how we do things at South Sydney has been a factor in his choice. To be able to bring him, at such a young age and have him build his career and play his most potent years at South Sydney is great for the club and our members.
“And it’s great for the game.”
Indeed, it is. After more than two months of speculation, negotiations, changes in management, leaked stories and some White House-like spin doctoring, the sight of Mitchell walking into Redfern in a Rabbitohs polo shirt was actually a very good thing for rugby league.
That said, this isn’t Xanadu — it’s the NRL! — and the ruthless business of winning matches remains at hand.
Confirmation Mitchell had signed a one-year deal, with an option Souths’ way for a second, raises more questions.
For instance, where will he play and, if it is fullback, what does that mean for Adam Doueihi, who will be wanting a conversation with coach Wayne Bennett sooner or later about his future?
Asked if he will be playing fullback, Mitchell was coy.
“Potentially, yes,” he said.
Was there a handshake agreement to wear the No.1 before he signed?
“Me and Wayne will talk about that in coming weeks,” Mitchell replied, not answering the question.
Has that been made clear?
“I’ve always come up as fullback,” Mitchell said. “I was never a centre. But the possibility of playing fullback again is exciting.”
Forget the tired storylines about Mitchell coming up against his former club in round three and possibly later in the year: how he transitions to fullback, after playing almost all of his NRL career at centre, is critical to Souths’ success.
Mitchell was a superstar fullback in the Roosters’ SG Ball team in 2014, although those who saw him play that season remember him more as a big, blockbusting five-eighth — including a mesmeric performance in the grand final against Penrith when he single-handedly turned around a 20-0 deficit to force the game into extra-time before scoring the match-winning try.
Playing fullback in the NRL, though, is much different. Apart from the dummy-half, few players run as many metres. None run as many metres so regularly at high speed, especially with such a reliance on the fullback — in the well-coached teams, at least — to organise a team’s defence.
Roosters coach Trent Robinson didn’t think Mitchell was a fullback, and moved him into the centres after a brief experimentation at the back. He brought in James Tedesco, allowing Mitchell to play with devastating effect at left centre. The payoff: two premierships, back to back.
NSW coach Brad Fittler and former Australian and Queensland fullback Billy Slater believe Mitchell can make the transition to fullback, however. Others question if he has the motor of, say, Tedesco — or even Greg Inglis.
The idea of Mitchell filling out the same No.1 jumper that belonged to Inglis and other Indigenous players over the decades is romantic. But can it actually work? Is his motor big enough?
“It’s the longest holiday I’ve had,” he joked when asked about his fitness levels. “I start training at 7.30am tomorrow, Wayne said. I haven’t woken up at 7.30 for a while so I’ll need a few coffees … I look alright, don’t I? I’ve got eight weeks to get fit.”
It would seem more likely that Mitchell would start the season at centre, with a potential switch to fullback later in the year, but we wait with interest.
It has the potential to squeeze out Doueihi, who the Wests Tigers are interested in signing after Mitchell rejected their $4 million offer.
Others will have to go, too, if Souths exercise their option by June 30 and sign Mitchell for 2021 for $800,000.
Bennett acknowledged the uncertainty could destabilise his team. Alex Johnston and Dane Gagai have already been speculated as the first to go, although that was happening before Mitchell arrived.
“And they’re hard decisions [to make],” Bennett said. “Some of those blokes have played great football for us. But, in the end, we couldn’t walk past the opportunity to take Latrell. This club is about success.”
Most of the risk of this deal is with Mitchell, however, and it was being viewed by other clubs, players and their agents as either brave or just plain dumb.
“The one thing that can’t be thrown at him is that he came for the money,” Bennett said. “It says a fair bit about him in a game when you [the media] keep telling us how greedy the players are. There’s a lot that aren’t.”
Perhaps it was because he had no options left. The Roosters had withdrawn their offer, and for whatever reason he didn’t seem keen on joining the Tigers, who were prepared to make him one of the highest-paid players in the game.
“Everyone thinks I wanted to chase the money,” Mitchell said. “It wasn’t. I wanted to chase other opportunities where I could take my footy. I just wanted to chase something else. I’ve won two premierships, won Origin, played for Australia. I want to find that love for footy again.”
Andrew Webster is Chief Sports Writer of The Sydney Morning Herald.