“Latrell is very vocal about his culture and what he stands for – he is inspiring the next generation,” Thurston said of the South Sydney pin-up. “That is the power of Latrell Mitchell.
“He’s really comfortable in his skin because he is so passionate. It seems to rub some people up the wrong way, but he won’t change who he is, and we shouldn’t be asking him to change who he is.
“I think it’s wonderful he calls out the racism he’s endured because there’s no place for it in this country, let alone in sport.
“He has a lot of weight on his shoulders, but he has a great mentor there in Wayne Bennett who has helped guide him since he’s been at the helm at Souths.
“I’m extremely proud of what he’s been able to do, not only from a footballing perspective but the way he leads by example within our culture, and the way he inspires the next generation.”
Mitchell is returning from a serious hamstring injury and had he stayed fit could have easily pushed South Sydney past the preliminary finals last year. Despite Mitchell being on the comeback trail from surgery, there was no way Souths officials were going to deny him taking part in the game against Maori All Stars.
Only Melbourne flyer Josh Addo-Carr would rival Mitchell for being the most popular Indigenous player with young fans. Addo-Carr and six of his Melbourne teammates were unable to play in this year’s game because of COVID and travel restrictions.
As for Mitchell, Thurston did not want to anticipate what lofty heights he could reach before he retired.
“He can turn a game in a blink of an eye, and although he’s coming back from a hamstring injury, having Latrell at 80 per cent is better than a lot of the players around in the game,” Thurston told the Herald.
“If he keeps going on this trajectory, I don’t want to put pressure on him or be putting bold statements out there, but he’s the reason young kids play the game.
“He’s had comparisons to Greg Inglis his whole short career, and GI told him, ‘You don’t try and be GI, you try and be Latrell’, which is good advice for him to try and put his own stamp on the game. That’s what he’s doing.”
Thurston joined the players in camp on Thursday night for a dinner ahead of Friday’s captain’s run. The pre-game celebrations by the Indigenous All Stars and the Maori All Stars is always a season highlight.
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Christian covers rugby league for The Sydney Morning Herald.