Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a kid again.
You are standing in your front yard, or backyard, or down at the local oval, just like it used to be.
There is a football with you. Feel it in your hands. You pass it and kick it, and eventually you dream with it.
You dream that it’s a big game, maybe even grand final day, and the minutes are becoming seconds, and those seconds are ticking away.
The team are down by a couple, they need something and you — only you, nobody else — can provide it, because you are the player who holds the destiny of the match in their hands.
So you score the try, or kick the goal, or boot the field goal, and the battle is over because the war is won. You’ve done it. You’re a legend, a champion, a hero.
It is the greatest moment of your life, and you do it again and again and again, telling yourself a never-ending story until the Sun goes down, the lights go out or you’re called inside for dinner.
It’s a wonderful dream to have, one that sustained so many of us through our younger years and, if we’re being truthful, one in which we indulge long after we realise it will never actually happen because, eventually, we grow up and leave those wishes behind.
But if they were to come true, they would turn you into something like Latrell Mitchell.
Those childhood dreams can happen for Mitchell, and it has 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 a rugby league superman.
Mitchell is a complex player and man, and putting his accomplishments down to natural talent does him a disservice, but when he’s at his best he plays like something a child would dream up — when he really wants to do it he can simply kick further, hit harder, run faster and pass quicker than anybody else, and there’s not much anybody can do about it.
That’s what makes South Sydney different to the other three teams left in the premiership race. Penrith, North Queensland and Parramatta spent one week outside the top eight combined all season.
But the Rabbitohs have travelled a more winding path to the preliminary finals, 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 they finished the regular season in seventh and haven’t spent a single week in the top four all year.
A season is a story, and it’s always a long one, but the deal with South Sydney in 2022 has been pretty simple: When Mitchell is there, they look like premiership material. When he’s not, they don’t.
That is not to discredit the rest of their roster. One-man teams don’t make it this far. Cam Murray is exemplary in the middle of the field just about every week and Cody Walker’s cunning, Damien Cook’s speed, Tevita Tatola’s muscle and Alex Johnston’s finishing have all played their part.
But if South Sydney are to do more than climb the mountain and hope for a miracle, if they’re to upset the Panthers and win again next week to claim their 22nd premiership, it will come from whatever greatness lies in Mitchell. This movement lives in him and because of who he is and how he plays, the team is always — to some extent — on his shoulders.
A lot of dreams have a monster at the end and the Panthers can fill that role with aplomb. They’re the best team in the league and have been all season. Their path to a second consecutive premiership has felt inevitable all year.
For the Rabbitohs to win they need Murray to replicate 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 all the rest to play well, but more than anything Mitchell must play like the superhero he’s fast becoming.
After falling just short against the Panthers in the 2020 prelim and the 2021 grand final (Mitchell was missing in both games), South Sydney will not get a better chance for revenge against the pride of Western Sydney. The battles of the past give them extra motivation, and in Mitchell they can find extra inspiration.
And if Mitchell can drive them to another grand final appearance, where they would fancy their chances against either Parramatta or North Queensland and seem a good chance to win the title, it will mark a great leap forward for his career.
He has already achieved so much and won so many matches and accolades. Neither of the Roosters’ premierships in 2018 or 2019 could have happened without him.
In the former, he banished Storm centre Will Chambers to the land of wind and ghosts. In the latter, he set up the match-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 moving. Mitchell is in the backyard with the ball in his hands and the game on the line, only it’s Stadium Australia and the place is howling, and if things don’t go right there won’t be another chance. There will only be judgement and blame from types who only have the good oil at the finish of the race.
There are plenty of people who come to watch the fall and Mitchell has more of those kinds of observers than most. That’s the other side of the fantasy we all had when we were young.
We do not imagine falling short and having to bear the cost of losing. Given the way Mitchell commands the spotlight, he will wear the result on Saturday regardless of what happens.
That is the weight of the crown the rugby league world has made for him and forced on his head. It’s something he’s never asked for, but it’s happened anyway. The praise is louder for him, but so is the criticism.
He plays like a hero, like he is larger than life, and so are our own reactions to seemingly everything he does.
Even if there are better players, there is nobody bigger. And while the eyes have always been on Mitchell, right now their focus has never been greater. This is his team and he is the man.
Perhaps it can also be his time, the time to become great, the moment in the story when the hero fully realises his powers. Perhaps the old dream is about to come true.