FOR the second year in succession the Rabbitohs missed out on the NRL playoffs by a solitary win in 2010. Through a mounting injury toll that only worsened as the season went on, they lost six games by four points or less, which would suggest that with the much-publicised signing of Greg Inglis on Christmas Eve, South Sydney now has a team to challenge for a premiership – a feat that has eluded them for the past 40 years.
A star-studded forward pack starts the season fully fit but it is the defensive attitude across the field that will determine whether long-suffering Souths fans finally have something to cheer about come September. Inglis, Issac Luke, Sam Burgess, Dave Taylor, John Sutton and Nathan Merritt are at the height of their powers and, barring a run of injuries similar to last season, the Rabbitohs have finally run out of excuses for ineptitude.
Still, some worrying early trial form must have their fans wondering whether or not things are about to change.
How They’ll Play It… Last year Souths seemed to be content to score more points than the opposition, no matter how many they conceded. By finishing the season in ninth spot and with the fourth-worst defence in the competition, it clearly didn’t work.
It’s hard to imagine a team in the NRL capable of containing the firepower South Sydney now boast for an entire 80 minutes but the Rabbitohs’ success in 2011 will be dictated by what they can accomplish without the ball. Last season they missed 40 tackles a game (the worst in the NRL by three tackles) and conceded 13.9 offloads (only the Bulldogs and Broncos gave up more). Whether it’s the defensive pattern being employed or an unwillingness to work harder for longer periods than the opposition, Souths can’t afford a repeat of those statistics in 2011.
Expect Plenty From… Sam Burgess and Dave Taylor. This pair could be the most dominant back-row combination in the game for the next five years if their games both mature and their desperation to execute the miracle play is tempered.
In an outstanding debut NRL season Burgess’ sole failing was his handling, particularly when he saw the white line just out of reach but found the attempt nevertheless irresistible.
Taylor didn’t start to play his best football until midway through the season and if he can restrain himself from brain snaps, like putting boot to ball or pushing passes that need not be thrown, then his bullocking runs and handy step will cause opposition defences all sorts of headaches.
They’re Going To Really Miss… Beau Champion, in particular his combination with Nathan Merritt. In 2010 the pair combined for a total of 30 tries and 27 line-breaks, a total that could have been even higher had Champion not missed the final five games of the year with a knee injury. He was the primary ‘casualty’ in the Greg Inglis saga (who just so happens to be his third cousin) but his consolation prize was a three-year deal with the Storm playing alongside Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk.
But then again, Souths have got Greg Inglis, so we won’t know until season’s end whether he has been truly missed.
It’s Time To Stand Up… Roy Asotasi. The general consensus is that South Sydney are yet to see the consistently outstanding performances expected of a player deemed the best prop in the game when he arrived at the club in 2007.
By his own admission serious injuries in 2008 and 2009 dented Asotasi’s confidence but as captain and primary metre-eater of this team, 2011 shapes as the Kiwi international’s most important season to date. Last year he averaged less than 100 metres gained per game for the first time since joining the Rabbitohs, a far cry from the 143.1 he racked up in 2007. His minutes per game were significantly down on previous years also but this is the time for Asotasi to stop worrying about how he fits into the forward structure and to show his young charges the way.
Elsewhere, young centres Dylan Farrell and Junior Vaivai will have a ding dong battle securing the one vacant centres spot alongside Inglis.
Coach Watch… He may be in the final year of his contract but John Lang certainly doesn’t give the impression that he is a coach under pressure. Entering his third year at the Rabbitohs, Lang has 371 first grade games as a coach to his credit and as such knows that results are what will dictate whether he even finishes 2011.
Perhaps the pressure will come from the knowledge that with the squad at his disposal, this might be his best – and final – chance at a second NRL premiership.
There is the persistent rumour that Souths are targeting either Wayne Bennett or Craig Bellamy as Lang’s successor in 2012. Watch this space.
They’ll Be Boosted By… Greg Inglis. But then again, there isn’t a team in the NRL that wouldn’t. Coach Lang sees him as potentially one of the game’s all-time great players and luring Inglis to Redfern will go down as one of the club’s greatest coups.
Inglis has undergone shoulder and hip surgeries during the off-season but is expected to run out to face arch rivals the Sydney Roosters in Round 1 and add a touch of class to an already potent backline.
Predicted Finish… With this squad anything less than a top-four finish should be deemed a failure. We’re not convinced about them and think they’ll finish in the 9th to 12th zone.
Under-20s… The backline that lit up the Toyota Cup in 2010 on their way to the grand final has all but disappeared, leaving a host of new faces to step into the breach. One face that will sit above all others is that of English Academy representative George Burgess, the younger, bigger brother of Sam who towers over the first grade squad, let alone the -20s.
Coach Scott Murray is also new to the role and his challenge will be to bring a young, inexperienced squad up to speed as quickly as possible.
Two players who finished 2010 in the Toyota Cup squad and are ones to watch are flyer James Roberts (who twice scored tries after collecting the ball in his own in-goal) and dynamic back-rower Adrian Ha’angana.
Comings… Greg Inglis (Storm), George Burgess (Bradford Bulls).
Goings… Colin Best (Sharks), Luke Capewell (Titans), Beau Champion (Storm), Garrett Crossman (released, wants to concentrate on University degree), Jaiman Lowe (Storm), Craig Stapleton (released).