The last time Latrell Mitchell played with Cody Walker, their State of Origin careers imploded.
Mitchell, 22, had a poor game in Origin I of last season, to the extent that he was dropped. He was furious with NSW coach Brad Fittler and they’ve only just patched things up.
Walker couldn’t get himself into the game as a rookie five-eighth. He was tentative and his plight wasn’t helped by an indifferent Mitchell outside him at left centre. Walker was also axed for Origin II and at age 30, may never play for the Blues again.
Now, the pair are South Sydney teammates.
Their botched first outing is unlikely to matter over the course of an NRL season. Especially considering that Mitchell and Walker are actually great mates, who now share the same manager (Matt Rose).
It is, though, just one thing to be worked out in Mitchell’s switch to the Rabbitohs. How will the team’s two most destructive attacking weapons jell on the left edge?
Walker is proficient in dishing out try assists (he had 16 last season) but is also a run-first player who loves to attack the line. Mitchell thrived alongside Roosters five-eighth Luke Keary, who also possessed a sharp running game but was conscious of giving his star centre the ball with the time and space, to best unleash his damaging runs. Mitchell is not highly involved in games, but incredibly effective if given quality ball.
Rugby league Immortal Andrew Johns calls Keary an out-and-out halfback, despite the No.6 on his back. A game-managing ball-player of Clive Churchill Medal-winning quality.
Walker is a heads-up natural five-eighth. He was criticised by Fittler last season for consistently failing to assert himself early in games. That tendency is not a nice fit for Mitchell, who is also criticised for lacking initiative.
You would think that Walker can make things work productively with Mitchell, the reigning Dally M Centre of the Year, but it may be a work in progress rather than an instant hit. That process will be difficult for Souths to navigate under extreme scrutiny, while it could also scotch Mitchell’s hopes of forcing a quick Origin recall, given how well Jack Wighton played as his NSW replacement at left centre.
Mitchell joins Souths from the most destructive attacking outfit in the NRL: the Roosters’ left edge. He scored 19 tries last season working in a unit with Keary, Boyd Cordner, James Tedesco and Daniel Tupou. Mitchell, Tedesco and Tupou scored a mind-boggling 52 tries between them.
Keary scored just two tries last season as Mitchell’s primary ball distributor. Walker scored 16. That’s potentially a stack of ball that never makes it to Mitchell; or perhaps it becomes an utter nightmare for rival defences.
It is believed that Mitchell will need to start the season in his usual left centre position, rather than switching straight to fullback as has been touted. He will be a late starter in pre-season and did not look sufficiently conditioned last season to play No.1.
That means both of the centres who finished last season, Dane Gagai and Campbell Graham, will likely be shunted out; with James Roberts also back in the frame after recovering from injury. Braidon Burns is returning from injury and was named a favoured centre option by Wayne Bennett as the supercoach tried to cover-up interest in Mitchell.
That creates a four-into-two situation on the wing, with Gagai, Campbell, Burns and Alex Johnston in the mix. The Rabbitohs have reportedly tried to get Johnston off their books with a club switch, to no avail, but he remains a quality try-scorer.
Rival clubs will surely be examining Souths’ outside backs surplus with interest. The Rabbitohs have reportedly committed $600,000 to Mitchell for this season, with the option of retaining him for $800,000 in 2021. Their salary cap is stretched thin.
Gagai has thus far not been content to play wing. Though he has been sensational for Queensland in the position, it is a tough role on a weekly basis in the NRL and pays less than being closer to the ball. It means hit-ups on return sets, getting bashed like a forward for a maximum pay day of about $550,000 per season.
Gagai, 29, is off-contract at the end of next season and is believed to be earning about $700,000 per year currently. He will not want to conduct his next contract negotiations, for perhaps the last big windfall of his career, with clubs under the impression that he’s primarily a winger.
There was some chatter that Gagai was expendable while Souths were trying to seal deals with Mitchell and Jai Arrow. His status is one to watch. He is an interesting player at NRL level, rarely hitting the extraordinary heights that he does for the Maroons.
Gagai, notably, was man-of-the-match in the 2019 Origin opener that got Mitchell and Walker dropped, running rampant on the right edge and scoring two tries.
At fullback, Adam Doueihi is a quality player who is just finding his feet in the NRL. He may suddenly feel like he’s keeping the No.1 jersey warm for Mitchell, whose desire to leave the Roosters was partly due to his enthusiasm for playing fullback; something that was never going to happen playing in the same team as Tedesco.
Doueihi is somewhat limited in terms of potential positions. Wayne Bennett tried him on the wing for Souths’ finals-opening loss against the Roosters, but later branded the move a “mistake”. He can play in the halves, but won’t with Walker and Adam Reynolds there, while the centres are already crammed.
Doueihi, fairly enough, won’t feel inclined to hang around while Souths experiment with Mitchell at fullback. He is contracted until the end of next season but may agitate for a move, meaning the Rabbitohs risk losing a good player over a position switch that may be highly exciting, but isn’t a guaranteed winner.
Mitchell as a fullback feels as though it will happen sooner or later. Otherwise, why the crazy saga to escape from the Roosters?
Roosters legend Anthony Minichiello originally had Mitchell pegged as a fullback, but was then convinced that he belonged in the centres as his body expanded. He will need to shed weight, both to manage the lung-busting running load of modern fullbacks and to avoid the type of injury susceptibility that brought down Greg Inglis.
Mitchell is 100kg-plus and 193cm. He is a close replica of Inglis’ body shape and the Rabbitohs legend was forced into retirement at age 31.
Lastly, Mitchell will be giving something up by joining South Sydney: goal-kicking. Mitchell is very good, the NRL’s leading point-scorer in 2019, but Reynolds is outstanding with the boot.
It’s only a small thing, but goal-kicking can be settling for a player accustomed to the duties; it is a role within a game that offers the feeling of productivity. It might have been handy for Mitchell as he acclimatised himself at Souths. Then again, it may be a burden removed.
Mitchell is such an incredible talent that it’s hard to imagine his Rabbitohs switch not working out. But there are so many factors at play that it’s certain to present challenges, which will be under the microscope from day one at Redfern.
The Rabbitohs have done incredibly well to replace Inglis and Sam Burgess, two all-time greats, with Mitchell and Arrow. Now we wait to see if Bennett can take the Bunnies past their preliminary final finish of last season with a revamped team and if Mitchell can threaten to win three premierships in a row.