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South Sydney fullback Latrell Mitchell

As part of an NRL.com series on players aiming for a bounce-back season, Chris Kennedy looks at how the growth of Latrell Mitchell as a fullback could pan out in 2021.

 

Superstar Rabbitohs fullback Latrell Mitchell's third season as an NRL fullback should be the one that stamps him as an elite No.1.

Mitchell's first season in the cardinal and myrtle didn't quite go to plan; there was the expected slow start, getting a round one rest and spending stints at centre as he eased his way into an increased load.

As he was hitting his straps there was a two-game suspension for a blow-up against the Wests Tigers. Then, as Souths started their charge towards finals came a season-ending hamstring rupture.

His best games included the three try-assists dismantling of the Titans in round five, the 200 metres with a try assist against Brisbane and the two-try effort against Manly a week before the injury.

But they mostly came against the more middling teams and he still had a tendency, as he did at centre, to let games drift for periods as he looked for the right time inject himself into the action.

In saying that, there was more than enough to prove the decision to move him to fullback was justified. The narrative – if it even still existed – of a lazy player content to coast through games can be safely discarded.

Running game down, creative game up

There was plenty of focus on Mitchell's running game, and particularly his lack of huge run-metre totals like those regularly racked up by the likes of James Tedesco, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Clint Gutherson and Ryan Papenhuyzen.

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Mitchell's average run metre figure was at the low end for regular fullbacks at 107 per match, and there was a huge drop in his line breaks and tries compared to previous seasons.

But his first season at Redfern and his first season at fullback since his debut year as a teenager brought him huge career highs in terms of his ball-playing output – a fact overlooked by many.

Mitchell had played between 23 and 25 games in each of his previous four seasons but in just 14 games in 2020, he produced his most line-break assists in a year with 18 and his most try assists with 11.

So in between the slow start, the suspension, the season-ending injury and criticisms over his involvement level, Mitchell was also quietly developing his ball-playing skills to match those of the top-tier fullbacks.

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In fact of all 16 regular fullbacks in 2020, Mitchell's rate of 1.3 line break assists per game was easily the best, ahead of Tedesco (1.1), Matt Dufty and Gutherson (0.8). His try assist rate of 0.8 per game was equal best along with Tedesco, Papenhuyzen and Gutherson.

A big platform to build on

We should get an indication early in the season of whether Mitchell is back to 100 per cent fitness after that nasty hamstring injury. Hopefully, it hasn't stunted his off-season fitness work too much.

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But his powerful running game is no secret after his previously devastating efforts at centre and the enormous strides he made as a ball-playing fullback last year will stand him in very good stead this year.

If he can get both those aspects of his game firing on all cylinders while also developing further as a defensive fullback, 2021 won't just be a bounce-back year for Mitchell – it could be the best year of his career to date.