Damien Cook has warned NRL fans that Latrell Mitchell will walk away from the game and retire if he keeps copping abuse and unfair treatment. Mitchell has been at the centre of drama at South Sydney over the last two weeks, with Rodney Churchill - son of Souths legend Clive - labelling him a "cancer on the club" and an "embarrassment to the No.1 jersey".
Churchill has since apologised for his extraordinary attack and offered to stand down from his role of presenting the Clive Churchill medal at the NRL grand final. His comments came amid a raft of backlash over Mitchell's underwhelming performances on the field since his return from a lingering calf issue.
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Speaking on Tuesday, Rabbitohs teammate Cook spoke out in defence of Mitchell and expressed fears he might be forced into an early retirement if the abuse doesn't stop. After being booed by Sydney Roosters fans late last season, Mitchell compared himself to Indigenous AFL great Adam Goodes, who retired in the aftermath of repeated jeering from supporters.
Cook conceded in Mitchell's case, a similarly early retirement was possible. "When you're a superstar player and you're so big to the game, this stuff continues to happen," the hooker said.
"You don't want to force a player like that into early retirement because he's just sick of it. You never know when enough is enough for some players. He'd have to be the most talked about player in the game and we've got to protect him."
Mitchell has also received heavy scrutiny following the sudden departure of Souths assistant coach Sam Burgess last week. Burgess reportedly clashed with coach Jason Demetriou over perceived preferential treatment of star players Mitchell and Cody Walker.
Mitchell has been targeted with negative comments all throughout his career, some of which have been racially motivated. In 2021, two men were charged for sending Mitchell racially abusive social media messages and in March this year, he was the target of racial abuse during a game against Penrith.
Captain Cameron Murray said the Rabbitohs would rally around Mitchell amid the furore. "He's a big part of what we do here and he's a big part of the NRL," he said.
"It's a great club here, and he's got a good support base around him. Hopefully, he'll be able to look past it and just focus on what we all love doing which is playing footy."
NRL to review Rodney Churchill's role for grand final
Meanwhile, NRL boss Andrew Abdo said the league will review Churchill's offer to stand down from his grand final duties. "Rod's issued his apology, the commission will have to consider that in due course," said the NRL chief executive. "That's not something that any decisions will be made on in the interim."
Elsewhere on Tuesday, Walker hit back at claims he wields too much power at Souths and denied he and Mitchell receive special treatment. "Definitely not," he said. "It does (annoy me) a little bit.
"I can't control the external noise, I just want to get out and play footy. All our energy is focused on this weekend's game, we can't control the external noise that's going on. We can focus on getting our prep right into a huge game against our arch-rivals this weekend and what a spectacle that's going to be."
Leading NRL writer Danny Weidler reported last week that Walker swore at Demetriou during a recent training session, which Burgess believed should have resulted in the five-eighth being dropped. Burgess left the club not long after, telling co-owner Russell Crowe he couldn't fall into line with Demetriou and the standards he was imposing at the club.
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