Never say never, but new Knights coach Adam O’Brien does not expect to continue his professional relationship with unsettled Roosters centre Latrell Mitchell in Newcastle any time soon.
After a long apprenticeship on Craig Bellamy’s coaching staff at Melbourne, then a season as an assistant to Trent Robinson at the Roosters, he took the reins in Newcastle on Wednesday on his first day of pre-season training as a head coach.
Having worked closely with Mitchell as the Roosters secured back-to-back premierships this year, O’Brien was asked if the 22-year-old Australian and former NSW game-breaker could also relocate to Newcastle, just 170km south of his home town Taree.
Mitchell is contracted until the end of 2020 but, in a statement on Tuesday, the premiers announced they had withdrawn their offer for 2021 and beyond. It is understood the Roosters would even consider releasing him from his 2020 obligations under the right circumstances.
Boasting a roster that already includes David Klemmer, Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga, the Knights would have to endure some significant number crunching to squeeze Mitchell into their salary cap, considering the Roosters reportedly offered him $800,000 a season before taking it off the table.
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"I think any team in the comp would be lying if they [said they] wouldn’t be interested in him, but the salary cap … is the biggest variable in this," O’Brien said after training on Wednesday.
"I haven’t sat down and had a complete good look at our forecast salary cap. Look, he’s an exceptional talent – I connected really well with Latrell – but having said that, there’s a lot of things to get through in terms of our own.
"We’ve got young guys like Bradman Best that we need to consider.
"I’m really reluctant to talk publicly about our recruitment and retention. Having spent some time with the players, it’s become clear to me that they went through some really anxious periods, a certain amount of guys, with the amount that recruitment and retention was played out in the public eye.
"They’re not chess pieces. They’ve all got the anxieties of the guy down the road. They’re fathers and husbands … so a lot of our recruitment and retention will be done in-house. I understand they’re questions you guys have got to ask but I’m mindful of my answers to that."
Though the Knights still have four spots to fill in their senior squad of 30, O’Brien said he had not spoken directly to Mitchell, or about him with new Knights recruitment manager Alex McKinnon.
"We’ve got some spots on our list, obviously [but] not spots at that high end in the salary cap, but I don’t know if there’s been any direct correspondence between Latrell’s management and us. I couldn’t answer that question," O’Brien said.
"You can never put a line through elite superstar players but at the same time, it is a long way away from happening just due to the amount of money that you’d have to pay for Mitchell.
"At the same time, I’ve got some young guys here that I don’t want to necessarily road-block either. Their development is really important to me. I think we’ve got some good kids here.
"Getting the right balance in your cap, at the moment we’ve got a really good spine, some good guys up front in the forwards, but you can’t have everyone. That’s why there is a salary cap.
"At this stage, it’d be a long way away but I’d never stick a line through a superstar. You just never know what could happen."
O’Brien indicated he would fill two of the four vacancies with trialling outside backs sooner rather than later, and keep two spots open to see how the transfer market evolves next season.
Among his observations after overseeing Newcastle’s first day of training, O’Brien said Ponga would start 2020 at fullback, he was impressed with the skill set and passing game of new hooker Jayden Brailey, and admired Pearce’s competitive nature and leadership qualities.