Jason Demetriou believes it was always going to take time for Latrell Mitchell to return to his game-winning best after a calf injury.
As South Sydney’s NRL top-eight hopes hang in the balance, the coach insists Mitchell cannot get back there without the support of his teammates.
Mitchell, the Rabbitohs’ star fullback, went down injured during NSW’s camp for the State of Origin series opener in May and missed more than two months of football.
His absence coincided with a steep downturn in form for the Rabbitohs, who sat first on the ladder through 11 rounds but lost five of seven games without Mitchell.
Mitchell’s return from a similarly-long knee injury last season helped spark the Rabbitohs on a run into September that only ended in the preliminary finals with a loss to eventual premiers Penrith.
But his comeback has not given eighth-placed Souths the same quick fix this time around.
In their two most recent games, Souths have fallen to top-eight rivals Cronulla and posted an unconvincing win over 16th-placed St George Illawarra.
The winner of Sunday’s clash with seventh-placed Newcastle will go a long way to locking up a finals spot, so the Rabbitohs will be keen for Mitchell to hit top gear sooner rather than later.
But Demetriou remains pleased with Mitchell’s progress post-injury.
“You’ve got to remember he was out for 10-12 weeks in the middle of the season,” he said.
“It’s a calf injury so he hasn’t had the miles in his legs to get back.
“It takes time. These things take time.
“Unfortunately the team’s under a bit of pressure. That adds to the pressure around his return but we’re really happy with where he’s at.”
At his best, Mitchell is able to both light the field up in attack and mastermind the Rabbitohs’ defence, an area of the game where Souths have struggled in the back half of the season.
Demetriou saw signs Mitchell was getting back to his defensive best against the Dragons, when Souths leaked fewer points than in any of their past five games.
“I felt last week, especially on our goal line, he brought a lot,” Demetriou said.
“He’s part of the team, his game will grow as the team’s game grows. It’s about getting into the right field position, getting him the ball when we need to but also getting some pride off his defence.
“I’m really happy with where that’s going, (but) as a team we need to keep growing.”
If the Rabbitohs lose to the Knights and Sydney Roosters in their last two games of the regular season, their finals hopes will hinge on other results falling their way.
“We’re going out there to perform in difficult circumstances but it’s the circumstances you want to be playing in,” Demetriou said.
“That’s what you want at this time of year. You want some games where you’re getting that intensity and getting ready for finals and pushing yourself in to make finals.”