Greg Prichard, NRL.com
Just when the Rabbitohs were on the brink of the club's first grand final appearance in 42 years, their season came crashing down on them. Leading 14-0 after 13 minutes of a preliminary final against a Sea Eagles outfit that was supposed to be battered and broken after a particularly tough end-of-season campaign, it looked made to order for a Rabbitohs team that had rested up the previous weekend to go right on with the job and power their way into the decider.
But that was where the fairytale ended. The Sea Eagles scored the next 30 points to turn the match around dramatically, leaving the Rabbitohs to score a meaningless last try in a 30-20 loss.
So what went wrong? Did the Rabbitohs start thinking ahead to the GF? Did they underestimate the ability of the Sea Eagles to fight back? Or were they, having built that 14-point lead, simply not busy enough after that?
It looked like option three. Maybe getting to a 14-point lead so early in the match was the worst thing that could have happened to the Rabbitohs. They just didn't play enough football over the remaining 67 minutes, and when the Sea Eagles got to the lead in the second half the Rabbitohs started looking like they knew they had blown it. And they had.
Coach Michael Maguire, who had endured an extraordinarily difficult day that began with the death of his mother, tried to remain upbeat at the post-match media conference. But Maguire is never one to give much away at those little get-togethers. It was captain John Sutton, sitting next to him, who told it how it really was for the Rabbitohs. Or tried to tell it. Sutton could barely talk, such was his devastation at the result.
Overall, the season was a strong one for the Rabbitohs. They were at or near the top of the competition table all the way down to a showdown with the Roosters for the minor premiership in a final-round clash. But they lost that game 24-12. The Rabbitohs won 14 of their first 16 games to be clear competition leaders, but then went through a stretch of three losses in four games. Sutton was out injured for one of those losses and Greg Inglis for all three.
When those players returned the Rabbitohs started winning again – until they met the Roosters. The Rabbitohs then beat the Storm 20-10 in Week One of those finals, but it wasn't convincing. The Storm hadn't been playing well late in the season and two controversial video refereeing calls went against them in that game – at least one of which should have gone their way. The Storm's late-season struggles were underlined the following week, when the Knights eliminated them from the competition.
Rabbitohs halfback Adam Reynolds wasn't nearly as good towards the end of the season as he had been for most of it, and Inglis, although his mere presence always gives the side a boost, wasn't having the same effect in attack as he did before that time out with a knee injury. And without Inglis being dynamic, and with Reynolds' kicking game being off, it meant the Rabbitohs suddenly didn't have enough going for them in attack to supplement their typically grinding style.
There is no reason the Rabbitohs can't compete for the premiership again next season, but they probably need to learn some lessons from the way this season finished for them.
Where They Excelled: When all the parts were working, the Rabbitohs were in the game with anyone – and on the vast majority of occasions they won. They had Inglis exploding on the kick returns to give them good field position when starting sets; Reynolds steering the team around the park expertly and kicking with great precision; Sutton adding the class touches; Issac Luke making great choices about when to attack out of dummy-half; and the Burgess brothers – led by Sam and George – absolutely powering up front. Off the back of all of that, their outside backs scored plenty of tries.
Where They Struggled: If a couple of the key parts either weren't there or weren't working, the team came back a long way. The warning signs were there when Inglis and Sutton were out injured, and when Inglis couldn't find his best form after returning it always threatened to hurt them against the toughest opposition.
Defensively, the Rabbitohs were badly exposed on their left side in the preliminary final against the Sea Eagles. It's OK if you're dominating games and the opposition doesn't really get the chance to test your defence, but that doesn't eliminate the threat of being exposed eventually.
Missing In Action: The Rabbitohs don't have a "big three" superstar trio, like the Storm. They have a "big one", in Inglis, and some very good players alongside him, but if Inglis is out injured or things just aren't working for him the difference in the Rabbitohs is huge. It all starts with Inglis, and when he couldn't find his best form at the business end of the season it meant the Rabbitohs couldn't go all the way.
Turning Point: The last-round loss to the Roosters in the minor premiership showdown was an ordinary look. Twice in the match, the Roosters scored two tries in three minutes. It was the sort of break-the-game-open statement the Roosters had become capable of making against the best sides, before going on with the job.
The Rabbitohs appeared to have broken the game open early in the preliminary final against the Sea Eagles, but were eventually run over.
Best Games: The Rabbitohs had plenty of good wins, starting with the 28-10 victory over the Roosters in the opening round. The only problem with that one was that the Roosters had more improvement in them during the course of the season than the Rabbitohs did.
Regular-season wins over the Sea Eagles ( 20-12 in Round 7 and 22-10 in Round 23) were also strong.
Worst Games: The 22-18 loss to the struggling Dragons in Round 19, the first of the four games for which Inglis was out because of a knee injury, was bad. The Rabbitohs had chances to clinch victory, but let the Dragons back into it.
Two rounds later, the Rabbitohs were pumped 30-12 by the Cowboys. Inglis was out for that game and Sutton was forced off injured during it.
But the preliminary final loss to the Sea Eagles was the most disappointing. The Rabbitohs conceded 30 straight points during that game.
Hold Your Head High: Dylan Walker turned 19 on the day the Rabbitohs were eliminated. It obviously wasn't a very happy birthday for him, but he had a terrific season. He is a very promising centre with the potential to play representative football. Inglis was great when he was injury-free, but he was obviously restricted towards the end of the season. Luke was one of the competition's top-shelf hookers all season, and Sutton led the side very well.
Also, George Burgess showed why he will be a feared competitor for a decade or more to come, with barnstorming runs to set your clock by.
Conclusion: This season was one that got away for the Rabbitohs. That might seem harsh to say about a team that made it all the way to the second-last weekend, but the Rabbitohs had made it that far the previous season and had serious designs on going all the way to the big dance – and winning it – this time around. All they can do now is regroup and strive to try even harder to realise their main goal in 2014.
Wins: 18 (Finals 1)
Losses: 6 (Finals 1)
Position: 2nd (3rd after finals)
Home Record: 9-3
Away Record: 9-3
Longest Winning Streak: 5 (Rounds 1-5, and Rounds 12-17)
Longest Losing Streak: 2 (Rounds 21-22)
Players Used: 25 (fewest)
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 99 (most)
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 67 (fewest)