By Nick Mulvenney
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Latrell Mitchell no longer goes by the name Goolagong and the great nephew of tennis champion Evonne could take another step out of her sporting shadow when the Sydney Roosters meet the Melbourne Storm in Sunday’s National Rugby League final.
The run up to the blockbuster clash at Sydney’s Olympic stadium has been dominated by a potential ban for retiring Storm fullback Billy Slater and the injury to Cooper Cronk, Sydney’s halfback.
That narrative was a natural given that, until the start of this year, Cronk had been part of a triumvirate with Slater and hooker Cameron Smith that ran the show for dominant Australia, Queensland and, to a lesser extent, Storm teams.
Slater, Man of the Match when the Storm won a second title in six seasons last year, was allowed to extend his NRL career by one match on Tuesday, contentiously cleared of performing a dangerous tackle in Melbourne’s semi-final victory.
Cronk, however, has described as a “Hail Mary” his battle to recover from a rotator cuff injury he sustained as the Roosters ground out a 12-4 victory over local rivals the South Sydney Rabbitohs last weekend.
Mitchell was suspended for the semi-final and he was missed — not least because the Roosters, without their regular place kicker, left eight points on the field.
The versatile 21-year-old centre is a whole lot more than his ability to slot the ball through the posts from the sidelines, however.
Combined with the sort of athleticism that won his maternal grandfather’s sister seven Grand Slam titles in the 1970s and 1980s, Mitchell has pace to burn, great handling skills and oozes physicality from every pore of his 6ft-4in frame.
In a game where defence is king, it is Mitchell’s ability to break the opposition line that has him marked out as a future NRL great and earned him comparisons with 39-cap Kangaroo and fellow Indigenous Australian Greg Inglis.
Mitchell grew up 90 minutes down the New South Wales coast from Inglis’s birthplace in a town called Taree, where the unemployment rate is double the national average.
It was a town where, as Mitchell once remarked, you could “get out and make a name for yourself or you go another way and go to jail”.
Mitchell decided early on that rugby league not tennis was going to be his route out and shed his great aunt’s famous surname in his early teens after a falling out with that side of the family.
He was already on the Roosters books when he scored 13 tries in seven games on an Australian schoolboys tour of Europe in 2014 and made his NRL debut two years late while still a teenager.
Mitchell made an immediate impact in the NRL and topped the try count for the glamour team from the Bondi beach suburb in his first two seasons, but it was not all plain sailing.
A dip in form saw him dropped during the 2017 season and he endured a nightmare as the Roosters crashed out of the playoffs in the semi-finals in a shock defeat to the North Queensland Cowboys.
This season, his career trajectory has been resolutely upwards again and he scored a try on his State Of Origin debut as New South Wales broke Queensland’s grip on the series.
And while the Roosters’ smothering defence has been the foundation of their success this season, the attack has purred like a well-oiled machine at times with Mitchell benefiting to the tune of 16 tries.
Even with Cronk driving that machine, however, the Roosters will have to be at their best to beat the most successful NRL team of the last decade.
Without Cronk, the sort of moments of magic that Mitchell can conjure up with ball in hand could be the difference between a 14th title for the Roosters or the first back-to-back champions since Brisbane in 1992-93.
(Editing by John O’Brien)