Gains: Matt King (Warrington), Luke Burgess (Leeds, ESL, mid-season), Ryan Carr (Redcliffe), Justin Hunt (Redcliffe).
Losses: Chris Sandow (Eels), Junior Vaivai (Panthers, mid-season), Shannan McPherson (Salford), Luke Stuart (retired), Beau Falloon (Titans), Rhys Wesser (retired), Ben Ross (Sharks).
How many false dawns must Rabbitohs fans endure before they start doubting whether the sun will actually rise in the morning? The much-heralded arrival of Greg Inglis to start 2011 further strengthened one of the NRL’s must potent attacking units yet their inability to hold teams out was again the architect of their demise. If they’d beaten Newcastle in Round 26 and qualified for the Finals Series we might have given them a pass mark for 2011 but an insipid opening 40 minutes where they conceded 30 points effectively drew the line through their 2011 season.
Relatively quiet in the player market, save for the handy addition of towering centre Matt King to strengthen the right-side attack, South Sydney have nevertheless made their most astute purchase in the coaching ranks for more than 30 years. Michael Maguire shapes as the most highly-credentialed coach to arrive at Redfern since supercoach Jack Gibson in 1978 and will bring with him a discipline and structure learned under Craig Bellamy at Melbourne and successfully employed at Wigan in the English Super League for the past two years.
Don’t be surprised if some of the flash gets toned down in 2012 in favour of a more unified South Sydney approach in both attack and defence.
How They’ll Play It: It would hardly be worthy of an episode of ‘Extreme Makeover’ but there’s no question that a new coach who learned his trade amidst the highly structured style of the Melbourne Storm won’t place a great deal of emphasis on plugging the very leaky South Sydney defensive wall. The challenge for Michael Maguire will lie in maintaining the potency of an attack that finished behind just Manly for points scored per game (22.1) whilst rectifying the worst defensive unit in the NRL. Maguire has at his disposal a forward pack laden with internationals, try-scorers aplenty in the backline and in rookie half Adam Reynolds a precocious talent he can mould to fit the style he wants the team to play.
The Toyota Cup halfback in South Sydney’s minor premiership season of 2010, Reynolds looks set to have first crack at the No.7 jumper vacated by Chris Sandow and shapes as a much better fit for a Maguire-coached team than his predecessor. A tough, traditional-style halfback with a good kicking game, Reynolds will be relied upon to bring out the best in those around him, not feel compelled to do everything himself.
Expect HUGE Things From: Greg Inglis. It’s hard to remember a time in recent memory when Greg Inglis looked as fit and fast as he did during Australia’s triumphant Four Nations tour of England at the end of 2011. Although he missed the opening clash against New Zealand following knee surgery at the end of the NRL season, Inglis scored tries in each of the three games he played and tormented the English defence in the Final. While eight tries from 18 games in 2011 is down on his normal return, burgeoning combinations with David Taylor and speedster James Roberts and a full pre-season will enable Inglis to deliver the type of performances Rabbitohs fans were hopeful of on a more consistent basis.
Bonus Points: Michael Crocker has returned to the type of football that made him a representative mainstay, David Taylor responded to a mid-season kick in the pants from Queensland coach Mal Meninga, and Sam Burgess is desperate to simply play football again. It’s a back row that has the potential to be unmatched by any other in the NRL if coach Maguire can find the structure that maximises each of their individual strengths. Taylor and Burgess are both guilty of not knowing the right time to offload the football but when you are as difficult to contain as these two, not promoting the football almost seems a waste.
There’s no question that Crocker was one of the Rabbitohs’ major positives in 2011, his gritty performances inspiring his young forwards to deliver above and beyond their expectations. In five of the last six games of the season Crocker played in excess of 70 minutes and 13 times recorded at least 30 tackles in a game. His 22 games signified his most productive season since 2003 and his record as a proven winner will be invaluable to the new culture Maguire is attempting to instil at Redfern.
They’re Really Going To Miss: The individual brilliance of Chris Sandow will be the most noticeable factor missing from South Sydney in 2012 but in terms of a presence that has held the side together on countless occasions over the past decade you can’t underestimate the influence of Luke Stuart. Stuart’s 242-game career (190 for the Rabbitohs) was brought to an end by a knee injury suffered in Round 5 against the Wests Tigers last season. “I don't think Luke Stuart's a player you can really replace,” team-mate Dave Tyrrell told the Daily Telegraph in the aftermath. Roy Asotasi will need an injury-free season and plenty of support from Luke Burgess to offset the loss of Stuart and Ben Ross from the front-row rotation.
It’s Time To Deliver: Roy Asotasi is at a very interesting time in his career. Hailed as the best prop in the game when Russell Crowe identified him as the man he wanted to lead the Rabbitohs out of the doldrums, Asotasi was a towering influence and led South Sydney to their first semi-final appearance in 18 years in his first year at the club in 2007. But injuries have struck hard in recent times, the former New Zealand captain playing just eight games in 2011 due to a wrist injury and rupturing his ACL in Round 22, 2009 that severely impacted his start to 2010. There were signs at the end of that season that Asotasi was recapturing the form of old and with the departures of Luke Stuart and Ben Ross it is imperative that Asotasi once again bends defensive lines backwards in his 11th NRL season.
How’s Their Depth: South Sydney start their campaign with excellent depth in every position – except the two most important ones, halfback and five-eighth. Adam Reynolds and Queensland Cup recruit Ryan Carr are vying for the starting shot at No.7 while John Sutton is the only obvious choice at five-eighth. Michael Maguire might be tempted to shift Greg Inglis in closer to the action should Sutton be out of action but if Reynolds and Sutton can gel early then they’ll likely be given every opportunity to play out the season there.
The raft of injuries that struck the forward pack in 2011 gave youngsters such as Jason Clark, Nathan Peats, Dave Tyrrell and Eddy Pettybourne plenty of game time but the returns of Sam Burgess, Roy Asotasi, Scott Geddes and Ben Lowe will make competition for a spot on the bench fierce. The retirement of Rhys Wesser opens the door for Nathan Merritt to play a full season at fullback, while the recruitment of Matt King may make it difficult for Dylan Farrell and Fetuli Talanoa to force their way into the 17.
Under-20s: First-time coach Ben Gardiner has seen the best and worst of South Sydney’s Toyota Cup capabilities in his role as assistant coach over the past two seasons. In 2010 they were minor premiers and in 2011, with an almost completely new playing roster, the Rabbitohs struggled to just four wins to finish the season in 14th. Kurt French played 13 of 17 games at halfback in his debut Toyota Cup season last year but Gardiner says he’s not guaranteed to start the year in the No.7.
“The thing with Kurt is that we’re not sure where his best position is at the moment,” he said. “He could play halves, he could play fullback or he could play centre, we’re just experimenting with him a bit at the moment. We’ve got another young seven as well, a bloke by the name of Luke Keary who played in the Queensland Cup last year, and he’ll be good. He’s a little bit more experienced and he’s played against men before, which is a big thing in the under-20s.”
Gardiner also pointed to injury-riddled back-rower Kyle Turner as a player of considerable potential. “He had quite a few injuries in his under-17s and under-18s and he looks like he could be a good specimen. I’m looking forward to getting him on the paddock,” he added.
The Coach: It’s not under-playing the signing of Michael Maguire as the most significant coaching appointment at Redfern since Jack Gibson in 1978. Maguire was a key figure in his time as assistant coach at the Melbourne Storm between 2005-2009, the esteem he is held in evident in English powerhouse Wigan giving him his first opportunity as a head coach in 2010. He repaid their faith almost immediately by taking the club to Super League glory and being named coach of the year in his first year.
Make no mistake, Maguire is the perfect man to eradicate South Sydney’s soft underbelly and transfer them from pretenders to contenders. How his players respond to what he asks of them will define their season.
Predicted Finish: Finishing outside the top eight would be another under-performing year – so we’ll say 8th.
Toyota NRL Dream Team view from NRL.com's Lone Scout
The value pick: Adam Reynolds is the rookie on everyone's lips at the start of the 2012 Toyota Dream Team season.
The must have: Sam Burgess is a steal at $201,400 if he stays off the injured list.