Latrell Mitchell is smiling again and this time, more people might do well to smile along with him.
Concurrently one of rugby league’s most exhilarating and polarising players, Mitchell played his first State of Origin game in two years on Wednesday night and in context, it was near flawless.
It was certainly a massive middle finger to his critics.
“Everyone would agree it’s great to see him [back]. He’s a good player,” NSW coach Brad Fittler said. “He does some great things on the field. It was awesome to have him out there.”
Mitchell wasn’t just brilliant, he was relentless. He was engaged. He was constantly damaging. “Amazing,” according to NSW halfback Nathan Cleary.
“I’m lucky enough to play alongside ‘Trell’ every weekend and he looked like he was having some good fun out there,” Rabbitohs and Blues hooker Damien Cook added on Nine post-match.
This was not the Latrell who was dropped after Origin I in 2019, with Fittler adamant that his head wasn’t in the game. Nor was it the player who threw one incredible flick pass to turn that year’s NRL grand final, with little else to speak of.
This Latrell was playing Globetrotters ball in the fourth minute, yet also taking bruising hit-ups from his own end when the field position war was being waged. There was grit right alongside the highlight reel contributions.
He burned the far leaner Xavier Coates on the outside down the sideline in the 17th minute, a breathtaking burst, then assisted Brian To’o’s maiden Origin try in the 22nd minute. With Nathan Cleary off the field, tending to a bleeding crater in his right cheek, Mitchell banged over the conversion for good measure; straight through the sticks from the sideline, despite being on a left-footer’s non-preferred side.
He took the kicking duties again late in the half, Cleary again missing due to significant blood loss, and it was a mini disaster. Up 20-6, he put a kick-off out on the full, after Kurt Capewell scored for Queensland against the run of play to keep his side alive.
The Maroons had five consecutive sets deep in NSW territory. It was a crucial time; the Blues could all but seal the game, or they cough up another try and let Queensland back into the contest.
Mitchell may be a fullback rather than a centre these days but he came up big on a tricky backline defensive assignment, with the Maroons shifting right in the 39th minute. The NSW No.3 was almost tempted into jamming inwards but instinctively checked his run, just as the ball was passed out to Queensland fullback Valentine Holmes, chiming on the edge.
Mitchell hammered him. Knock-on, NSW ball. Half-time lead preserved.
“That’s a great read from Latrell Mitchell,” Blues great Peter Sterling said on Nine.
Maroons champion Billy Slater added: “At this level, you need to attack with your defence and Latrell Mitchell certainly did that then.”
The bar was set. One of Mitchell’s hardest markers when he was dropped in 2019, legendary NSW coach Phil Gould, gave him a solid half-time rating.
“He’s had a powerful start to the game, attack and defence,” Gould said on Nine.
“He’s come up with a couple of crunching defensive plays that have forced errors and with whatever opportunity he’s had with the ball, he’s made them pay.”
But the show was only at intermission.
In the 49th minute, Blues fans were treated to the bizarre sight of two NRL fullbacks, in this case the centre pairing, assisting and scoring a try shoulder-to-shoulder. Right centre Tom Trbojevic, playing a roving role, grubbered through on the left edge and there was Mitchell to clean up and score.
In the 59th minute, Mitchell returned the favour. He was backing up hard as five-eighth Jarome Luai made a break on the left and had the presence of mind to immediately offload for Trbojevic to run away and score.
The rout was well and truly on when Mitchell bobbed up in the 61st minute to catch a spilt bomb from Coates, getting over the line for his second try. The conversion made it 38-6 and the Blues were certain winners.
Mitchell ran 177 metres from left centre, on top of two try assists. But again, it was not all razzle dazzle. It was not all glory plays. The effort was strong throughout, pairing volume with quality. Triple try-scorer Trbojevic was man of the match but Latrell was special nonetheless.
He didn’t miss a defensive assignment all night on Queensland’s Mr Origin, Dane Gagai. He was still trying to pinch an intercept in the 74th minute, with 50 points on the scoreboard. And he started a massive team defensive play in the 77th minute, with nothing left to play for but pride.
With To’o finally outdone on a high kick by the taller Coates, Mitchell scrambled to cover his winger’s missed tackle, bundling the Maroons player towards the sideline. He did enough for other NSW defenders to arrive and deny Gagai a try; with Isaah Yeo running from mid-field.
Fittler erupted in the box. It was a dream end to the night, the kind of play that might have been match-winning on another occasion. Fittler later branded it his play of the game and it capped 80 minutes of balls to the wall stuff, led in that instance by a player not always heralded for gut-busting efforts.
“That’s Origin right there,” Sterling said.
That’s Origin. That’s Latrell. An Origin-calibre player every day of the week, yet banished for the past 24 months.
Some of the criticism during that time made sense; it was coming from the top, in Fittler and Gould’s case. Much of the rest was meaningless gibber. Some, in the case of racist online abusers, was despicable and harmful.
Now Mitchell is back where he belongs, critics and trolls be damned, with a performance that answered so many past knocks on his game and his standing in rugby league.
Mitchell turns just 24 this month. It could prove a long, triumphant comeback and Wednesday was an emphatic start.
“Latrell’s run early in the game where he went up the sideline, that was a big moment of the game. And then his tackle where he came in [on Holmes] as well. A couple of huge plays,” Fittler said post-match.
Gould said: “Every time he touched the ball, he looked dangerous.
“He came up with some really big plays in defence, forced some turnovers with some solid stuff. But when the ball was around him and there were opportunities in the offing, he took them. He was very powerful with the run, supporting the play, had a hand in a couple of tries and scored a couple himself.
“Latrell’s back. It was a mighty performance.”
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