Having left his previous project Darius Boyd behind in Brisbane, Wayne Bennett is set to take on the infinitely talented, yet troubled Latrell Mitchell in 2020. With Sydney Roosters clearing the way by unconditionally releasing Mitchell from the final year of his contract, the NRL has ratified the Rabbitohs move to sign the representative outside back.
Mitchell has signed a one-year deal at Redfern, with an option for a second year, bringing to an end the most intriguing and frustrating contract negotiation in recent memory. Since turning down a healthy contract extension with the Roosters to test his market value, Mitchell and his management have rejected several lucrative offers from rival clubs, as speculation ran rife over the future of the 22-year-old, two-time premiership winner.
At the forefront of Mitchell's discontent has been the yearning to pull on the fullback jersey, something that was never going to happen at the Roosters with the game's premier No.1 James Tedesco well ahead of him. Talks broke down with the Bulldogs after they confirmed they were happy enough with Dallin Watene-Zelezniak in the custodian role and the signing of Valentine Holmes ended his hopes of playing fullback for the Cowboys. The Titans expressed a tentative interest through Mal Meninga, although most agreed that the Gold Coast was not the best of destinations for the young man.
When Wests Tigers withdrew a reported $1million offer, after Mitchell's management took too long to respond, South Sydney seemed to be the only viable club remaining. The biggest issue remained a report that the Roosters would not release Mitchell from the final year of his contract to sign with their bitter rivals. That was put to rest today.
It is yet to be confirmed whether Bennett will grant him his positional wish, with Mitchell today confirming he still considers himself a fullback.
"Potentially yes, I've just come over to get in a good system and just get fit and start playing some good footy," Mitchell told the assembled media.
"I think me and Wayne will talk about that in the coming weeks, I just want to get back into the routine and start training... I was always a fullback coming up, never a centre, the potential to play fullback again is exciting, but I'm excited to see where I can take my footy now."
Bennett has a well-documented record of taking players under his wing and squeezing the best out of them. His fatherly style had been so successful at the Broncos, that the Dragons, Knights and most recently the Rabbitohs have brought him on board hoping he could turn raw potential into premiership-winning results. His second year at the Rabbitohs promises to truly test the master coach.
"I've seen the success he's had in his career and I guess I just wanted to see where he could take my footy as a coach," Mitchell said of Bennett.
Last year Bennett led the historic club to within one win of a grand final appearance after finishing third on the ladder. He heads into the 2020 season without star players Greg Inglis, Sam Burgess and John Sutton, with Titans star Jai Arrow not arriving until 2021. Mitchell is by far their biggest addition for 2020, but he brings with him plenty of doubt.
On his day it is clear that Mitchell is one of the most lethal attacking weapons in rugby league. On an off day, he can be a disinterested liability, particularly in defence. If anyone can find the key to having Mitchell maintain focus throughout the year, it will be Bennett.
"It's as probably big as when they signed Sam Burgess and Greg Inglis a decade ago," Bennett enthused.
"It's a huge player for us to have here, at his age particularly, what he has done with two premierships, played for his country, State of Origins and with his best football still in front of him -- I couldn't be more pleased that he has come here, we feel pretty humble, he had plenty of choices.
"The one thing they can't throw at him, is that he came for the money, because he didn't do that," Bennett added.
South Sydney's general manager of football, Shane Richardson, was confident that the coaching staff assembled at Redfern would provide Mitchell with the best environment to develop.
"Latrell is a sublime talent and with the guidance of our coaching staff, senior players and mentors, we think Latrell can go to another level in the red and green," Richardson said in a club release.
"He has the ability to be one of the best players in the world and from our discussions with him he understands that it's going to take a lot of hard work and effort for him to be at his best consistently and to reach his full potential.
"He will get that opportunity at the Rabbitohs, working with some wonderful mentors here in Wayne (Bennett), Jason (Demetriou), Ben (Hornby), Greg (Inglis), John (Sutton) and Sam (Burgess), and we're really looking forward to seeing Latrell at his peak wearing the famous cardinal and myrtle jersey that so many greats of the game have worn before him."
For the Rabbitohs to have any hope of improving in 2020, they will need Latrell Mitchell leading the way.