Ben Blaschke, NRL.com
If there is one man in the South Sydney line-up who knows all about their rivalry with the Sydney Roosters, it is five-eighth John Sutton. Among the longest serving of the current Rabbitohs squad, having debuted in 2004 (only Nathan Merritt has played longer in the red and green), Sutton was part of a side that struggled to compete with their next-door neighbours throughout the mid-2000s – so it’s no surprise he has relished he club’s resurgence under coach Michael McGuire over the past two seasons.
Now with the chance to knock the Roosters from their perch and claim the minor premiership for themselves in the process, the 28-year-old is keen to send a message when the two old rivals clash at ANZ Stadium on Friday night.
“When you grow up in this area, you know it’s been a great rivalry between the two clubs,” Sutton told NRL.com. “Back in the early days they used to get on top of us most of the time when I first started out, but it’s been pretty good to be able to turn that around a bit the past couple of years.
“Everyone looks forward to this game. I know that I can’t wait to get out there and test myself against them. We’ve got the wood over them the last couple of times and hopefully we can keep that going on Friday night.”
Sutton traces part of South Sydney’s resurgence back to 2007 – the first time since 1989 they had reached the finals – back to owner Russell Crowe’s now-renowned ‘The Book of Feuds’. Written with a view to educating the current crop of Rabbitohs players on the club’s proud tradition of rivalries – and with a special chapter reserved for the Roosters – Crowe would start each week at training by reading out the chapter relevant to whoever Souths were playing that week. Sutton has never forgotten the impact it had.
“Yeah, back in ’07, there were a number of games there where he read out the rivalry before we played them. I remember that it worked really well though.
“‘The Book of Feuds’ … I thought it was pretty good. It got the boys fired up and everyone enjoyed it.”
As it stands, Sutton is one of only five players remaining from that year so just what impact ‘The Book of Feuds’ has on the rest of the squad is doubtful, but the memory of the lean years that preceded it lingers long on his mind.
“Just to be part of a South Sydney side that’s up near the top of the table, it’s great,” he said.
“There were a lot of tough years there but last year was a very enjoyable year. It was a bit disappointing at the end but this year’s been great and hopefully we can keep continuing to play good and progress further this year.”
Sutton also expects the Rabbitohs to be much better prepared for the challenges that lay in wait this time around.
Last year they fell one game short of the grand final after falling to Canterbury in the Preliminary Final, but the veteran Rabbitoh says he learnt a lot from the experience.
“It’s a different game – once you get to the finals it’s a whole new level,” he said. “The game is a lot faster, the games are a lot tougher. It was a good experience last year so having that in the back of my mind for this year is a positive for sure.
“I think it will help the team too. We’ve got some new players in there but I think just having the extra year’s experience playing together has definitely helped us. Our combinations are getting a lot better. It’s going to be a big bonus going into the finals.”
While Sutton said he was looking forward to going up against NSW State of Origin halves Mitchell Pearce and James Maloney, it is back-rower Sonny Bill Williams who South Sydney is looking to dominate following a week in which the Kiwi forward’s battle with Sam Burgess has dominated headlines.
“They’ve got strike [power] all over the field and some big boppers in the middle, Sonny on the edge and then Michael Jennings out there so definitely strike all over the park so we’ll have to be good everywhere,” he said. “But if I had to pick one person we need to watch it would probably be Sonny. He has that X-factor about him. We’ll definitely be looking to control him and lock up the ball every time he runs.”
The Rabbitohs can secure their first minor premiership since 1989 should they come away with the points on Friday night, but although that prize is one worth fighting for Sutton insists it isn’t their primary concern.
Having trailed lowly Wests Tigers 18-0 last week before storming home, Souths can’t afford another slow start if they are to steal top spot away from the Roosters.
“That’s the big thing for us,” Sutton said. “It’s something that’s been bothering us for the past six weeks or so, our starts. I can’t put my finger on what’s going on there but it’s definitely been a problem and we need to address it.
“I think it’s just important for us to perform well this week. We’ve won our last three games but there is definitely room for improvement. I think if we play at our best we are good enough to do a good job and get the minor premiership but hopefully we just put in a good performance.”