Imagine, for a moment, that you are a child again.
You’re standing in your backyard, or in the yard, or down at the local oval, just like it used to be.
There is also football with you. Feel it in your hands. You pass it and kick it, and you end up dreaming with it.
You dream that it’s a big game, maybe even a big final day, and the minutes turn into seconds, and those seconds tick away.
The team is behind by a couple, they need something, and you — only you, no one else — can provide it, because you are the player who holds the fate of the game in your hands.
So you score a try, or kick a goal, or kick a field goal, and the battle is over because the war is won. You did it. You are a legend, a champion, a hero.
It’s the greatest moment of your life, and you do it over and over and over again, telling yourself a never-ending story until the sun goes down, the lights go down, or you’re invited inside for dinner.
It’s a wonderful dream to have, one that has carried many of us through our younger years and, if we’re honest, one that we indulge in long after we realize it will never come true because, eventually, we grow up and leave those desires behind.
But if they came true, they would turn you into something like Latrell Mitchell.
Those childhood dreams can happen for Mitchell, it happened and it will happen again, maybe even this weekend against Penrith in the preliminary final.
The odds are against the Rabbitohs, but anything is possible when they have Mitchell, who is fast becoming the superman of rugby league.
Mitchell is a complex player and man, and to put his achievements down to natural talent does him a disservice, but when he’s at his best, he plays like something a child would dream of – when he really wants to, he can just kick further, hit harder, run faster and it goes by faster than anyone else, and there’s not much anyone can do about it.
That’s what sets South Sydney apart from the other three teams left in the premiership race. Penrith, North Queensland and Parramatta have spent one week outside the top eight combined all season.
But the Rabbitohs traveled a more winding road to the preliminary final, through low valleys and over high peaks.
Such is their star power and their excellence in knocking out the Roosters and Sharks, it’s easy to forget that they finished the regular season in seventh place and didn’t spend a single week in the top four all year.
A season is a story, and it always is a long one, but the deal with South Sydney in 2022 was pretty simple: when Mitchell is there, they look like premiership material. When he’s not, they don’t.
That’s not to discredit the rest of their roster. Solo teams don’t make it this far. Cam Murray has been exemplary in midfield almost every week, with Cody Walker’s trickery, Damien Cook’s speed, Tevita Tatola’s muscle and Alex Johnston’s finishing all playing their part.
But if South Sydney want more than climbing the mountain and hoping for a miracle, if they are to upset the Panthers and win again next week to clinch their 22nd premiership, it will come from any size in Mitchell. This movement lives in him and because of who he is and how he plays, the team is always — somewhat — on his shoulders.
Many dreams have a monster at the end and the Panthers can fill that role with aplomb. They are the best team in the league and have been all season. Their path to a second straight premiership has felt inevitable all year.
For the Rabbitohs to win, they need Murray to repeat his performance from last week, when he played one of the best games of his life, and they need Cook and Tatola and Walker and everyone else to play well, but more than anything Mitchell has to play like the superhero he is quickly becoming.
After coming up short against the Panthers in the 2020 qualifiers and the 2021 grand final (Mitchell missing both games), South Sydney will not get a better chance to avenge the pride of Western Sydney. Battles from the past give them extra motivation, and they can find extra inspiration in Mitchell.
And if Mitchell can lead them to another grand final appearance, where they fancied their chances against Parramatta or North Queensland and looked like a good chance to win the title, it will mark a huge leap forward for his career.
He has already achieved so much and won so many matches and accolades. No Roosters premiership in 2018 or 2019 could have happened without him.
In the first, he banished Storm center Will Chambers to the land of winds and spirits. In the latter, he set up the winning try for James Tedesco.
But this is different, like the difference between a supporting player and a leading role.
The stage is set and the pieces are in motion. Mitchell is in the yard with the ball in his hands and the game on the line, only the stadium is Australia and the place is howling, and if things don’t go his way, there won’t be a second chance. There will only be judgments and blame from those who only have good oil at the finish of the race.
There are many people who come to watch the fall and Mitchell has more such watchers than most. It’s the other side of the fantasy we all had when we were young.
We do not imagine that we fail and have to bear the cost of loss. Given the way Mitchell handles the spotlight, he will carry the result on Saturday no matter what happens.
It is the weight of the crown that the world of rugby league has made for him and forced upon his head. It was something he never asked for, but it happened anyway. His praises are louder, but so are his criticisms.
He plays like a hero, like he’s larger than life, and so are our reactions to seemingly everything he does.
Even if there are better players, there is no bigger one. And while eyes have always been on Mitchell, now their focus has never been greater. This is his team and he is human.
Perhaps it can also be his time, the time to become great, the moment in the story when the hero fully realizes his powers. Maybe an old dream will come true soon.