In a huge blow to Brad Fittler’s New South Wales men and the NRL’s hopes of making an impact in the non-traditional rugby league town of Adelaide, Latrell Mitchell has been ruled out of the State of Origin opener.
A calf injury picked up at training on Sunday saw Mitchell’s hopes of returning to the Blues dashed. Stephen Crichton, an undoubted talent, takes his place but Mitchell is one of the few players in this game – and in his generation – that are irreplaceable.
Mitchell will be sorely missed as the Blues try to win back the Origin shield and regain some respect after last year’s shock loss. The South Sydney back may not have been selected in his position of preference yet such is his ability he was rated unquestionably the best centre in the game. In the four-decade long history of Origin, only Queenslanders Mal Meninga and Greg Inglis attracted more attention and had a larger influence than Mitchell.
The term “strike” is often used a little loosely in rugby league but it is the perfect descriptor of Mitchell, a player who has the rare ability to change a match with a moment of sublime skill as much as with brute strength or elite speed. But even that combination of strength, speed, smarts and skill does not truly do justice to the significance he can add to a football game.
Mitchell carries himself like a star. He brings gravitas. He provides an aggression that lifts those around him, a player that inspires and elevates – one that must be gameplanned for.
Billy Slater switched Valentine Holmes from his preferred left side to the right for the sole purpose of trying to shut down Mitchell – an adjustment the Maroons coach would be unlikely to make for any other player. Second-gamer Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow was put on the left even though he has little experience in the centres because the talented Tom Trbojevic was viewed as the easier defensive matchup.
Mitchell cannot be easily defined by statistics even though they tell a compelling story of what a critical player he is for the Blues. Since 2014, NSW have led 2-0 in a series just twice – the only two full series Mitchell has played in. In the five non-dead rubber Origin games Mitchell has played in, the Blues have won four. They have lost the last two series that Mitchell missed. And despite playing just seven games, he is tied in 11th for Blues tries scored with six.
His club form has been irrepressible this season as well. In 12 games he has nine tries and nine try assists, the only player in the competition with at least nine tries scored and set up. He is one of just eight players with 60-plus tackle busts.
Not only is his absence a blow for NSW’s chances, it is a blow for the game itself. Queensland fans may breathe a little easier in Mitchell’s absence but his withdrawal will hurt those who see Mitchell as the Blue they most want to beat. Outspoken, brash, aggressive and shining bright with star power, along with a rare record of superiority over them, Queensland fans have come to view Mitchell as their pantomime villain. It is a role Mitchell has thrived on throughout his career but one that makes any Queensland success that much sweeter. Much like the Blues always wanted to beat the Maroons with Wally Lewis, Queensland want Mitchell on his haunches in defeat.
The NRL will also be devastated by Mitchell’s forced withdrawal. Tickets are not sold out, which is rare for State of Origin, but more worrying is the impact Mitchell’s absence in Adelaide will have on growing the game in South Australia. Adelaide briefly had a premiership team in the Rams from 1997 to 1998, and while it is not a city on the radar for expansion it is an area where the NRL is hoping to see a spike in week-to-week interest after this Origin clash.
State of Origin will, of course, be State of Origin, one of the most important events on Australia’s sporting calendar and one that will deliver drama and intensity as it always does. Losing a headliner like Mitchell just takes off some of the sheen and hurts the NRL’s ambitions.
Follow the 2023 State of Origin series opener in Adelaide with Guardian Australia’s minute-by-minute liveblog. Kick-off on Wednesday night is 8.05pm AEST