Latrell Mitchell NRL signing circus could end in tears

Latrell Mitchell of the Roosters looks dejected after losing a game to the South Sydney Rabbitohs. Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Wests Tigers may well have dodged a bullet, after withdrawing their healthy offer for Roosters centre Latrell Mitchell. Mitchell is a high price, high quality, high risk prospect that could have been the best or worst thing to ever happen to the joint venture club. The indecisiveness of Mitchell and his management painted the Tigers into a time restraint corner -- they simply could not risk missing out on other players while waiting for a decision.

Tigers chief executive Justin Pascoe explained; "Our first responsibility is to our club and we can't be inactive in a market like the NRL player market and afford to sit around and wait."

With that, a four-year, $3.8 million offer was withdrawn. The Bulldogs withdrew a similar offer weeks ago after Mitchell apparently insisted on playing fullback, something the Bulldogs could not entertain having locked in Dallin Watene-Zelezniak.

North Queensland Cowboys had been in conversations with Mitchell and his management team, but they just about locked themselves out by signing returning NFL aspirant Valentine Holmes. It was suggested by the more cynical that the whole Cowboys offer was a ruse designed to entice an early commitment from Holmes. The fact that Holmes is keen to play fullback would seemingly rule out Mitchell, even though the club is still suggesting they can fit both stars under their salary cap.

South Sydney remain in the background, despite indicating that they have no interest. It is believed that the Roosters will release Mitchell from the final year of his contract to play with any club other than the Rabbitohs, such is the animosity between the traditional rivals. It remains to be seen whether the Roosters would really stick Mitchell in reserve grade to keep him out of the cardinal and myrtle.

By default the Gold Coast Titans appear to be the only club still in the running for Mitchell's signature.

"The Titans are always interested in attracting quality players to the club and Latrell more than fits that description," a Titans spokesman said.

"Latrell has expressed an interest in moving to the Gold Coast to play for the Titans, to continue his growth as a player and person under the mentorship of Mal and coaching of Justin."

The Gold Coast is where Victorians go to retire, sporting teams rise and fall and rugby league careers go to die. The Titans have become a graveyard for stars in recent years including Bryce Cartwright, Ashley Taylor, Tyrone Peachey, Jarryd Hayne, Dave Taylor, Greg Bird and Jamal Idris to name a few.

Titans head of performance and culture, Mal Meninga, has promised to take Mitchell under his wing and guide him through the potential minefield. But Meninga has also thrown in that the Titans won't be funding a Gold Coast holiday for Mitchell and they won't be participating in a bidding war for the star.

It leaves Mitchell facing the very real prospect of playing for the Roosters feeder club, North Sydney Bears, next season. Roosters coach Trent Robinson has already indicated that there won't be a first grade jersey available after the club withdrew their two-year contract extension.

The average rugby league fan is left scratching their head, wondering just what the Mitchell camp are after. It seems obvious and understandable that they are seeking as much money as possible, as well as the right to tell the new club that he is a fullback, despite previous evidence to the contrary. The problem they have in the theatre of public perception is that many would feel $3.8 million over four years is a very generous and suitable offer for a 22-year-old rugby league player, who despite clear talent, doesn't have a large body of work to point to.

Mitchell is a superstar of the game and on his day is just about unstoppable. When he was dropped following State of Origin I this year, many were left perplexed by the decision. After a thorough review of his performance, however, it was clear that for whatever reason, his heart was not fully in his performance that night. He has since been painted with the reputation of being the kind of player who can go missing at times, a taint which wasn't helped by his recent performance for the Kangaroos against Tonga.

There is nothing worse for the morale of any team than to introduce a big-money signing who doesn't produce the goods, through a perceived lack of effort. If Mitchell drops his head during a game because he is having an off day, the edge backrower next to him in the defensive line has to work extra hard to cover. That player might be on a quarter of Mitchell's pay packet and that stings with discontent soon to spread.

For a recent example you only have to look at the Parramatta Eels, who finished fourth in 2017. They paid big money to sign Jarryd Hayne the following season, only to finish last, with reports of a very unhappy dressing room. Hayne departed and the Eels were semi-finalists again in 2019, under the same coach, with much the same line-up.

The feeling that everyone on the field is in the same boat has a strong influence on the performance of players. The suspicion that someone in the team is taking home big dollars and not performing can destroy the bonds that unite players for the common cause. It doesn't take much of a drop in intensity for a club to go from contenders to easy beats.

At the Roosters, Mitchell has been a key part of one of the most lethal attacking units in rugby league. The back-to-back premiers have established an environment where star players such as Mitchell and teammate James Tedesco can take full advantage of their natural talents. The Roosters forwards usually win the battle in the middle of the park and in Cooper Cronk and Luke Keary they had the halves who knew how and when to unleash their flashy backline. Will Mitchell shine so brightly in a team that is struggling across the park?

Are Mitchell's shoulders broad enough to carry the weight of expectation that will come with his big-money signing by a struggling club? Will he find happiness on the Gold Coast? Will we see him wearing a black and red jersey at North Sydney Oval? Whatever happens, we can only hope that the circus that has enveloped him over the past few months does no long term damage to what could be a monumental career.