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Rabbitohs CEO Blake Solly has taken a stunning swipe at the NRL after accusing the league of exploiting the club's star fullback, Latrell Mitchell.
The latest drama surrounds NRL CEO Andrew Abdo's reaction to questions about Mitchell's return from suspension, during last week's unveiling of the 2022 draw.
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Perhaps the biggest headline from the draw announcement was Mitchell's scheduled return in the round three grudge match against his former club, the Roosters, when his six-match ban ends.
The Bunnies superstar was rubbed out of the back-end of the 2021 season - which culminated in a thrilling loss to the Panthers in the NRL decider - after a shocking late hit on Roosters star Joseph Manu in round 24.
Manu had to undergo surgery after suffering multiple cheekbone fractures as a result of the incident that ended Mitchell's season early.
The controversial incident led to a wave of backlash against Mitchell, who struggled to deal with the fallout.
Mitchell's uncle Maurice Goolagong revealed at the time that his nephew and partner had received death threats over the saga and it had taken a massive emotional toll on the 24-year-old.
When asked about the prospect of Mitchell and Manu squaring off when the former returns from suspension in round three next year, NRL CEO Andrew Abdo smiled before revealing his delight at how the draw had panned out.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Rabbitohs were "privately seething" about the NRL chief's response and accused the league of exploiting their player when it suited them.
“The NRL are quick to utilise Latrell and his profile to market the competition or ask him to take a leadership position on issues such as vaccination — when it benefits them,” Rabbitohs CEO Blake Solly said.
“It would be more impressive if they were as quick to protect and defend him from some of the outrageous personal criticism and abuse he receives at other times.”
The "outrageous personal criticism" could refer to the vitriol aimed at Mitchell after the Manu incident, as well as the backlash he faced after posing with an Indigenous flag draped over his shoulders during the NRL’s 'Simply The Best' ad last year.
In response to the Rabbitohs' anger about Abdo smiling at the prospect of Mitchell returning against the Roosters, the NRL CEO insists he did not mean any offence.
NRL CEO responds to Latrell Mitchell uproar
“I certainly didn’t mean any disrespect by smiling or my comments,” he told the Herald.
“The draw throws up lots of situations and we don’t focus on one individual. I was smiling because it wasn’t something that was planned for or I had thought about.
“Latrell is a wonderful player and fans will be excited to see him back playing again.
“The schedule is driven by so many constraints and we don’t focus on any one individual element.”
The grudge match between the Roosters and Mitchell is just one of several highlights of the 2022 fixture list.
Penrith's season-opening match against Manly is set to pit Clive Churchill Medallist Nathan Cleary against Dally M Medal winner Tom Trbojevic.
That will depend on Cleary being fit to overcome a shoulder injury in time to play, with the match marking the first game back in NSW since last July.
Adam Reynolds will also face his former club South Sydney in the opening round when he runs out for Brisbane against the Rabbitohs.
The grand final rematch will fall in round four between the Panthers and Rabbitohs, while arch-rivals Penrith and Melbourne meet during Magic Round in Brisbane.
The Warriors are also poised to return home against Penrith in round 15, marking their first match in New Zealand since 2019 - subject to the New Zealand border reopening to Australia in time.
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