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Season review: South Sydney Rabbitohs

Ben Blaschke, NRL.com Fri, Oct 05, 2012 - 10:00 AM

Issac Luke was directly responsible for three tries from dummy-half as well as seven line-break assists, four line-breaks and four half-breaks. Copyright: NRL Photos

Wins: 16
Losses: 8
Position: 3rd
Home Record: 9 wins, 3 losses (=1st)
Away Record: 7 wins, 5 losses (=4th)
 
Longest Winning Streak: 6 (Rounds 17-22)
Longest Losing Streak: 2 (Rounds 1-2, 23-24)
Players Used: 26
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 94 (5th)
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 81 (=8th)

South Sydney players said they were devastated when they fell just one game short of the grand final – they always are when the ultimate prize is so close – but no side other than their semi-final conquerors Canterbury made such significant strides in 2012.

The NRL’s great under-achievers over the past decade finally lived up to their immense potential this season, finishing the regular season in third and producing some of the most flamboyant attacking football seen all year.

Their success was a result of any number of factors but none was more significant than the arrival of new coach Michael Maguire from Wigan.

The former Melbourne Storm assistant coach instilled newfound discipline in the Rabbitohs’ outfit and, more importantly, found a way to have the side’s array of superstars finally working together rather than as individuals.

He also produced a positional master-stroke against Penrith in Round 3 when he moved Greg Inglis from the centres to fullback in an effort to get his hands on the ball. Inglis responded by monstering the Panthers in a 40-24 win and spent the rest of the year doing the same to all who crossed his path.

Perhaps the most obvious sign of the influence Maguire had on his players was how the side responded to losing their first two games of the season – the first against rivals Sydney Roosters in heart-breaking fashion.

Rather than drop their bundle as they have in the past, they responded with seven wins from their next nine games and remained in the top four from that point on. 

They also played their part in two of the most remarkable games of 2012 – both coming against the Roosters. In Round 1, Souths led 20-12 with less than three minutes remaining but a try to Jared Waerea-Hargreaves opened the door for Anthony Minichiello to finish off a stunning length-of-the-field movement with the final play of the game.

Eighteen weeks later the two sides met again and even George Lucas couldn’t have written the script any better as South Sydney did the unthinkable by turning the tables on their old foes.

Trailing 22-12 inside the final two minutes, Nathan Merritt crossed under the posts to close to within four, then from the kick-off they went the length of the field with the ball moving from Dave Taylor to Chris McQueen then Nathan Merritt and Issac Luke before Adam Reynolds crossed to steal the win.

As Fox Sports commentator Warren Smith yelled at the time: “You can take me now, I have seen it all!”

It wasn’t always smooth sailing for the Rabbitohs. While Taylor finished the regular season strongly after being omitted from the Queensland State of Origin side for the series decider, his commitment was again questioned at times throughout the season and his decision to sign with the Gold Coast in 2013 came amid rumours that Souths weren’t too upset to see him go.

And Maguire showed his players exactly who was boss when he dumped hooker Luke to NSW Cup in Round 25, citing a combination of disciplinary reasons and significant on-field errors in the preceding weeks. Luke returned the following week but didn’t regain his starting spot from Nathan Peats until Week Two of the finals.

Still, there was plenty for the club to be pleased with in 2012. The emergence of halfback Adam Reynolds was huge for the Rabbitohs – the 23-year-old’s level head and pinpoint goal kicking a highlight of their impressive season. He was eventually named Dally M Rookie of the Year and it came as no surprise that the side slumped when he suffered a hamstring injury in their grand final qualifier against the Bulldogs.

And of course, the fact that Souths was back in the finals spotlight for just the second time since 1989 – and for the first time as genuine title contenders – brought the Red and Green Army out in droves.

They haven’t had much to cheer about over the years but they will head into the off-season dreaming of some fine days ahead.

Where They Excelled… South Sydney’s work out of dummy-half was their greatest strength in 2012, with Issac Luke in particular leading the way in attack.

Their 611 dummy-half runs was second to Brisbane (621) in 2012 although they were easily the most dangerous – scoring a competition-best 14 tries from dummy-half and also ranking first for both half-breaks (13) and line-break assists (12).

Luke was directly responsible for three tries from dummy-half as well as seven line-break assists, four line-breaks and four half-breaks.

Where They Struggled… The Rabbitohs might have posed plenty of threat with the ball in hand in 2012 but their long-kicking game let them down. In fact, they found open space with their clearing kicks just 96 times compared to 118 that hit the chest of an opponent. Their 44.9 per cent success rate in finding the grass ranked second to bottom in the Telstra Premiership, with only Penrith faring worse (44 per cent). By comparison, benchmark Melbourne found open space 60.5 per cent of the time.

Souths also struggled to beat the big guns in 2012. Although they scored impressive wins over Canterbury and North Queensland earlier in the year, 12 of their 17 wins came against teams that ultimately missed the top eight.

Missing In Action… With just 26 players used in 2012, South Sydney enjoyed a pretty decent run when it came to injuries – although they did suffer up front at times with both Roy Asotasi and Scott Geddes missing for lengthy periods. Asotasi missed 15 games through the middle of the season with a pectoral muscle injury, while Geddes, whose career has been littered with injury, featured just 12 times in his farewell season due to a ruptured bicep among other niggles.
A broken arm robbed veteran centre Matt King of the chance to play in finals against Canberra and Canterbury. Ben Lowe and Nathan Merritt also missed a handful of games while four players – Michael Crocker, John Sutton, Adam Reynolds and Dylan Farrell – played all 27 games (with Reynolds injured in the final game against Canterbury).

Turning Point… Michael Maguire’s decision to move Greg Inglis to fullback in Round 3 proved decisive for the Rabbitohs. Not only did they claim their first win of the season in that game over Penrith, it also set the tone for the sensational year that was to follow. 

Inglis’ devastating attacking abilities were never fully utilised out wide where he relied on his inside players to provide him with good ball, but with the freedom to inject himself from the back he proved a devastating match-winner and made all the difference on numerous occasions throughout the year.

Best Games… A 20-10 win over Canterbury in Round 6 looks particularly impressive in hindsight, but Souths fans will no doubt look back at their victory over Canberra in Week Two of the finals with great fondness. Their first win in a finals game since 1989, the Rabbitohs prevailed 38-16 although in reality they were even more dominant than the final scoreline suggests. Souths led 14-0 early and withstood a brief fightback late in the opening half before piling on three second-half tries to move to within one game of the grand final.

Worst Games… Just a week before that big win over Canberra, Souths travelled to Melbourne all fired up for their first finals appearance in five years – and promptly found themselves trailing 24-0. Like Rabbits in the headlights, Souths simply weren’t able to up the intensity and match the precision of a Storm outfit that has played countless finals games over the past seven seasons. That the result was decided by half-time proved a huge letdown for both players and fans alike as ill-discipline cruelled their aspirations.

Hold Your Head High… There were any number of standout performers – not the least Greg Inglis, whose average 149 metres per game, 161 tackle-breaks, 22 line-breaks, 14 try assists, 13 line-break assists and 12 tries sparked the side to life. Sam Burgess was again dynamic, averaging 131 metres per game, while rookie halfback Adam Reynolds showed maturity beyond his years as he steered his much more experienced team-mates around the park. His 97 goals from 114 attempts at 85.1 per cent was particularly impressive. 

Despite being dropped briefly towards the back end of the year, there is no doubting the influence Issac Luke had on the side’s success. Luke averaged 116 metres and added 82 tackle-breaks, 45 offloads and 16 line-break assists in 2012.

Coach Michael Maguire says: “I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made but I recognise that we’ve got some big steps in front of us to continually take. I’m very pleased with the way the players bought into what I’ve brought to the club. They’ve really developed a very strong culture now with the hard work they’ve put in throughout the year. 

“When I arrived, all I wanted from the players was to keep improving all the time and we’ll take that same philosophy into next year. We just want to keep taking strides forward. We learnt lessons throughout the year with wins and losses and putting our structures in place. 

“Our attack and defence continually evolved. We didn’t get results straight away but I knew that the work we had put in was going to pay dividends. Even after that first game against the Roosters, what really stood out for me was that I walked into the change room and there was a lot of hurt showing. I knew then that I had a really good group there. The players learnt a lot out of the experiences they had and eventually the structures started to click and everyone understood what we were trying to do. 

“Our halves, Johnny Sutton and Adam Reynolds, really stood up. Issac Luke and Nathan Peats really developed as hookers and obviously the move of Greg Inglis to fullback added a lot to us. Right across the park I’ve seen improvement from each individual.”

Conclusion… The disappointment of coming so close to a first grand final since 1971 aside, 2012 was a hugely successful season for the Rabbitohs. Having under-achieved for a number of seasons now given the talent on their roster, new coach Michael Maguire finally managed to harness his players’ full abilities and the results were impressive. Most notable was the consistency that Souths displayed throughout the season: other than those first few weeks, the Rabbitohs lost two games in a row just once (Rounds 23-24) while regularly stringing consecutive wins together. In the end, their lack of finals experience proved telling, but the signs moving forward are positive and they will only be better for the experience.

*Statistics - NRL Stats