Nigel Wall, NRL.com
Take a look at the Rabbitoh's road to the finals as they prepare to play the Melbourne Storm in week one of the Telstra Premiership Finals.
1. The Michael Maguire factor
Michael Maguire may yet prove the NRL buy of the year. Souths have promised plenty over the past few years but they have always found a way to shoot themselves in the foot, in particular through an inattentive defence. But the Rabbitohs have a newfound discipline and direction under Maguire, who learned his trade under Craig Bellamy at the Storm. Fundamental to their success to date is borrowing the best from Bellamy: ‘Madge’ has introduced everything that works at the Victorian franchise, including appointing a host of co-captains within a leadership group, added defensive steel, plus basing their attack on an awesome backline that’s triggered by playmaking ingenuity. Maguire’s head-to-head battle with Bellamy this week will be compelling.
2. Defending the realm
You need look no further than the defensive statistics sheet to realise why Souths have gone from outside the playoffs to become a top-four side in 2012. Souths’ players have made a quantum improvement in defence this season – they’ve gone from missing the most tackles in 2011 (a whopping 41 per game) to missing the second fewest behind the Bulldogs (28). Their roster hasn’t had any trouble posting points over the past few seasons but some flimsy jumper grabs have prevented them from fulfilling their potential. That is now well and truly behind them.
3. Tough to hold out
When the Rabbitohs have worked their way into the opposition 10-metre zone in 2012, points have never been far away. Souths have the third best success rate from close range, scoring 50 tries (including all three against the Knights last week). In particular they are the kings of the ‘burrow’, scoring an NRL-high 14 tries from dummy-half, with hooker Issac Luke always dangerous. But such is their confidence they’re knocking each other out of the way to have a go – unlikely providers Greg Inglis and John Sutton were successful from dummy-half last week.
4. GI to fullback
What a masterstroke from Michael Maguire: Nathan Merritt may have initially felt down in the dumps about being overlooked for the No.1 jersey – but his disappointment would have been short-lived given the incredible attacking thrust Inglis has provided from fullback. Maguire moved Inglis from centre to custodian after their Round 2 loss to the Storm; the very next week ‘GI’ tore Penrith apart, scoring a try, making two line-breaks and running for 193 metres. He’s made life miserable for all sides since, especially chiming in on the left-hand side of the field, employing his don’t-argue fend and devastating left-foot sidestep. His support play trailing through the centre of the ruck, a la Billy Slater, has been a feature too. Inglis has crossed for 11 tries with 20 line-breaks, 14 try assists, 13 line-break assists and a whopping 135 tackle-breaks.
5. Rise Of The Rookie(s)
All the questions about Souths in 2012 concerned how they’d go without Chris Sandow but Adam Reynolds answered every single one of them with a seamless transition into the No.7 jersey. Just like Daly Cherry-Evans, Reynolds has played every minute of his debut season. He has more than held his own against some more-fancied opponents, providing vital fluency as the South Sydney backline let rip in a benchmark attacking year. Better still, Reynolds has shown a willingness to put his body on the line in defence, offering Souths a sturdy all-rounder at the base of the scrum. Plus he offers them security with his kicks for goal, with his 84 per cent success rate the second best in the comp. Meanwhile Everingham, who got his chance after sending coach Maguire a home-made highlights tape that served as his CV, has proven a reliable and dangerous finisher on the right edge – he even tipped out Nathan Merritt for leading try-scorer the year, crossing for 15 through Round 26.
6. Games that mattered
Extra time has been kind to the bunnies to date – there’s little doubt Greg Inglis’ field goal in sudden death for a 17-16 win over the Wests Tigers in Round 5 was the turning point in their season. The much-touted squad was staring at a debilitating 1-4 start to season before Inglis conjured his magic. The next week they defeated Canterbury 20-10 to further steady the ship. Their 34-28 win over the Sharks in Round 9 was crucial, with Inglis scoring three tries and Nathan Merritt crossing for two. They gained some more joy in sudden death in Round 11 – with Adam Reynolds booting a field goal for a 19-18 decision over the Dragons. And of course they ended on a high note with a six-game winning streak from Round 17 that thrust them high up the top eight (they finished the regular rounds with seven wins in their final nine games). However, fans may look back at their Round 19 win over the Roosters as their defining moment. After relaxing to let the Roosters steal the competition points with two tries inside the final two minutes of their season opener, Souths got even in similar, sensational fashion.
7. Let’s rumble
It’s been a huge year for the ‘Coal Train’ Dave Taylor. Six years ago, when he made his debut for the Broncos as a raw-boned 17-year-old, he helped to prop up their front-row rotation. At Souths he’s developed into the most skilful and damaging second-rower in the business. Stirred into action when dropped from the Maroons side for the State of Origin decider, he has been a standout during the back half of the season. Coach Maguire handed him a roving commission earlier in the season – but he’s now settled into his groove on the right edge of the field where he and Andrew Everingham have struck an uncanny combination. Taylor’s unpredictability has been tough to coach against: he’s not afraid to grubber kick for supports; he has an offload that’s tough to prevent; and his 122-kilogram frame presents a nightmare for opposition halves ‘hiding’ in defence down their left edge. Taylor’s 14 line-breaks are double that of his nearest positional rival and he’s crossed for nine tries with nine line-break assists. He is averaging 122 metres with 25 bruising tackles a match; last year he made seven line-breaks and averaged 108 metres.
8. Depth & cover
Souths have had their share of injuries, including losing Sam Burgess in Round 5 and co-captain Roy Asotasi in Round 6 for extended periods, but they have only used 26 players overall – the second fewest in the league. Burgess’ contribution has been pivotal: after limping through just four games in 2011 he has managed a robust 19 so far in 2012 – of vital importance given his average 127 metres a game and 34 offloads. His performance against the Roosters would have the Storm on red alert this week: he made 21 hit-ups for 199 metres with seven tackle-breaks and four offloads. Also, their spine has had minimal disruption, with halves Reynolds and Sutton playing every game and fullback Inglis and first-choice hooker Luke each running out on 19 occasions.
9. Run Rabbits, run
Souths have had more success busting through opposition defences than any other side, with an NRL-high 127 line-breaks to date. Their threat is spread across the park with their most dangerous weapons including Inglis (20), Taylor (14), Dylan Farrell (12), Merritt (11), Everingham (10), Sutton (nine) and Sam Burgess, Chris McQueen and Reynolds (eight each).
10. Issac Luke
He may have had a cloud hanging over him these past few weeks but there’s no doubt Issac Luke has been a silver lining for Souths in 2012. His running and direction from dummy-half has provided a perfect balance for Reynolds’ work one off the ruck. Luke leads all players for runs from dummy-half (212) and also all hookers for metres gained from the ruck (114) and tackle busts (70). Plus he’s made the fifth-most offloads in the comp (39) from just 19 games. Luke showed renewed commitment last week with 73 touches and 126 metres in 51 minutes on the paddock – if he maintains focus he could be the ace up their sleeve throughout the Finals Series.