Chris Sandow has produced brilliance in attack, some sub-par defence and plenty of heartache at Souths after signing on with the Eels for 2012.
Home Record: 8 wins, 4 losses (=6th)
Away Record: 3 wins, 9 losses (=10th)
Longest Winning Streak: 4 (Rounds 21-24)
Longest Losing Streak: 3 (Rounds 5-7 and 11-13)
Players Used: 27 (second fewest)
Player Of The Year: Yet to be announced
Tries Scored (After 26 rounds): 89 (=3rd)
Tries Conceded (After 26 rounds): 102 (third most)
A strong finish to the season in which South Sydney embarked on a four-match winning streak to very nearly steal an unlikely top-eight berth overshadowed the sad truth about 2011 – that missing the finals simply isn’t good enough for a club boasting as much talent as this bunch.
Bolstered by the arrival of star centre Greg Inglis in the pre-season and with the likes of David Taylor, Issac Luke, John Sutton, Sam Burgess and Nathan Merritt leading the way, the Rabbitohs were rightly expected to challenge for a top-four finish this year but, as has been their bane over the years, their wildly fluctuating form put an end to such high hopes.
Five losses from their opening five games was hardly the start Souths were looking for and it wasn’t until it was almost too late that they finally got their season started.
Two losses to Canterbury early in the year as well as poor showings against Penrith in Round 12 and Cronulla in Round 17 proved costly, while a season-ending injury to star back-rower Sam Burgess in Round 7 came at an inopportune time.
Most frustrating for Rabbitohs fans, however, was the ease with which they piled on points at times towards the back-end of the season. Over a four-game stretch between Rounds 21-24 they scored a whopping 163 points at more than 40 per game including big wins over St George Illawarra, Parramatta, Canberra and North Queensland.
But just as easily as hope arrived it faded away again and losses to Brisbane and Newcastle in the final two rounds saw them finish a disappointing 10th.
Where They Excelled: When Souths were in the mood, they were almost impossible to contain – as evidenced by their scoring spree in the back-half of the season. The Rabbitohs ranked third for points scored in 2011 with 531 – behind only Manly and North Queensland – and equal third for tries scored with 89. Winger Nathan Merritt was prolific with 23 tries (co-NRL top try-scorer) including five against Parramatta in Round 22 but it was South Sydney’s left edge that caused opposition teams plenty of problems with the combination of David Taylor and Greg Inglis simply sensational during the closing rounds of the year. The Bunnies scored 35 tries on their left side in 2011.
Where They Struggled: Defensively the Rabbitohs were all over the shop in 2011. They ranked third worst for points conceded at 23.4 per game and tries conceded at 4.2 per game. They also ranked third worst for average metres conceded and worst for line-breaks conceded (5.2 per game) and missed tackles (39.9 per game). Most telling was South Sydney’s goal-line defence. They conceded 56 tries in the 0-10 metre zone – more than any other team in the NRL.
Missing In Action: South Sydney’s forward stocks were severely tested in 2011. The biggest blow was a season-ending ankle injury to back-rower Sam Burgess (a late starter in 2011 as it was) that limited him to just four games, while Ben Lowe and Luke Stuart played only five games each and captain Roy Asotasi eight. Ironically, Michael Crocker – who has barely been sighted in recent seasons – played 22 of 24 games this year. The loss of so many of their key big men took some time to adjust to.
That said, the Rabbitohs called on the second fewest playing personnel of all teams in 2011 (just 27 players).
Turning Point: Were it not for that stunning four-match winning streak we could well be looking back at 2011 as one of complete disaster for South Sydney. Instead, it is the one that got away. The Rabbitohs’ season took a long time to get going but really kicked into gear with a remarkable comeback against premiers St George Illawarra in Round 21. Trailing 20-0 after just 18 minutes, Souths proceeded to score 34 of the next 38 points to secure a memorable victory. Riding high, they followed up with three more wins on the trot.
Best Games: The Rabbitohs’ 56-6 thrashing of Parramatta in Round 22 was about as good as it gets. From the moment Greg Inglis broke through and stormed 60 metres to score after just three minutes Souths never looked back. Halfback Chris Sandow was at his scheming best, big David Taylor tormented the Eels’ pack and Nathan Merritt – filling in at fullback for the injured Rhys Wesser – was everywhere as he scored a club record-equalling five tries. Souths led 34-0 at half-time and went on with the job after the break.
Worst Games: South Sydney didn’t turn up to play against the visiting Warriors at ANZ Stadium in Round 20, going down 48-16. They trailed 18-0 after 15 minutes and 24-0 soon after before finally troubling the scorer to briefly threaten a comeback. But despite enjoying the home-ground advantage and having plenty to play for they again faded out of the contest as the Warriors scored nine tries to three on a sorry day for the Rabbitohs.
Hold Your Head High: Halfback Chris Sandow could have eased back and cruised his way through the back half of the year after signing a big-money deal to join Parramatta in 2012 but instead it seemed to spur him on to bigger and better things. Producing a number of huge plays during the side’s late surge, he finished the year as the NRL’s top point-scorer with 192 for the season. Winger Nathan Merritt was also impressive with 23 tries for the year – equal best with Canterbury’s Ben Barba.
Coach John Lang says: “We’ve had a lot of injuries all year… one thing I’m really proud of with the boys is that we could have packed up our tents three months ago and been one of those sides trying to avoid the wooden spoon,” he said.
“I’ve been so proud of our younger players. A lot of them we looked at as back-up players – but they’ve become front-line players for us and in the end got us to within one win of the finals. It’s disappointing that we couldn’t finish the job because I would have loved to have made the finals. We didn’t do it but we gave it our best shot.”
Conclusion: Once again the Rabbitohs exhibited their immense potential in 2011 before falling short when it mattered most. Unfortunately the fact remains that there is a soft underbelly to this side that belies the sheer talent they boast across their squad. Their defensive stats certainly prove that to be the case.
The task for incoming coach Michael Maguire will be to somehow find a solution. A series of season-ending injuries to key forwards didn’t help their cause but even without the likes of Burgess, Asotasi, Stuart and Lowe the Rabbitohs must feel that they seriously under-achieved in 2011.