Nigel Wall, NRL.com
1. ‘Madge’ to the rescue
Former Storm assistant coach Michael Maguire may prove South Sydney’s most significant signing of the past few decades – and that’s saying a lot considering the club opened its wallet for the likes of Greg Inglis and Roy Asotasi at a time when each player was considered the best in the world in their positions. Former mentor John Lang was certainly capable but the veteran rugby league identity was always going to be a stepping stone.
Now the Rabbitohs’ powerbrokers have their fingers crossed their faith will be vindicated and that ‘Madge’ Maguire will be the rock on which their long-awaited premiership foundations will be laid. Maguire was considered a quick learner and an astute strategist during his five years under Craig Bellamy at the Melbourne Storm and it was no surprise he was head-hunted by English Super League side Wigan in 2010. And he had immediate impact as head coach, winning the ESL Grand Final in his first year.
Maguire’s primary focus will be to instil a better balance at Redfern: Souths had few problems getting over the tryline in 2011, ranking third for both points and tries scored – but they blotted the attack with a diabolical, uncommitted defence that missed the most tackles and conceded both the most offloads and line-breaks. Maguire’s job is to stop the haemorrhaging. He learned his trade under the best wrestle merchants in the business, so expect a dramatic improvement from Round 1.
2. Realising their potential
While Souths have had some big names on their books for several years, they haven’t yet gelled in the same season. But the signs are that all their stars may align in 2012. Greg Inglis eased into the red-and-green jersey in 2011 with a B+ report card (eight tries, a line-break every two games and an average 3.5 tackle busts an outing) before excelling for the Kangaroos in the Four Nations (three tries in three games). With some familiar faces in former Storm centre Matt King and new coach Maguire, he’ll feel more comfortable this season and will look to further develop his combination with Dave Taylor on the left edge, as well as fullback Nathan Merritt.
Michael Crocker had his best year since leaving the Storm in 2008, averaging 30 tackles and 60 minutes a game for just the second time in his 11-season career. He relished his leadership role and his application will be desperately required given Ben Ross’s move to the Sharks and Luke Stuart’s retirement. Meanwhile Souths went within a win of the top eight last year despite Sam Burgess suiting up just four times. Burgess’ combination with Crocker and Dave Taylor should form one of the most devastating back rows in the league.
3. New life after Chris Sandow
It may sound harsh, but the ungilded truth is that Chris Sandow was often a one step forward, two steps backwards contributor in his time at Redfern. For all Sandow’s attacking brilliance, and his game-turning plays, his defence was a liability. Sandow missed more tackles than any player in the NRL last year (138) – including 11 against Newcastle in his last game in Round 26. (In fairness, new coach Maguire will need to transform the defensive games of Issac Luke and Dave Taylor, who also figured in the top 10 for missed tackles. And how new No.7 Adam Reynolds will fare remains to be seen.)
Sandow’s departure could also significantly benefit their strike power – it opens the door for five-eighth John Sutton to regain his attacking mojo. Sutton was overwhelmed by his halves partner last year and recorded his fewest line-break assists and try assists since Sandow made his debut in 2008. With rookie halfback Reynolds sure to be handed a conservative role, Sutton will be fed more ball and playmaking duties; fans will be hoping he can replicate his Midas touch of 2009 when his 27 try assists topped the NRL.
4. Full of Merritt
Rhys Wesser’s retirement paves the way for whippet-fast Nathan Merritt to make the No.1 jersey his own. And he’s certain to be a standout success in his favourite position. Merritt topped the tryscorer’s list alongside Ben Barba with 23 four-pointers in 2011 – but a breakdown reveals Merritt was most deadly at fullback. He scored 10 tries in 16 games on the wing… and 13 tries in six games at fullback. He led wingers in support play (70) but Maguire knows the shift to fullback will see Merritt join the likes of fellow custodians Billy Slater, Anthony Minichiello, Luke Burt and Barba in posting triple figures for supports.
5. Never too many chiefs
The appointment of five co-captains at Redfern borrows from Melbourne’s successful innovation in 2006-07, when six Storm players shared the leadership. Significantly two of that number – Michael Crocker and Matt King – reprise their roles for the Rabbitohs in 2012. Injuries have rocked Souths’ leadership in past seasons and Maguire has moved swiftly to ensure stability should any leading figure be sidelined. It also relieves the potential for internal conflict; Crocker warmed to the captaincy when he filled in for the injured Asotasi last year. A united front just may work wonders.