Ever since scoring a try on debut against the Brisbane Broncos as a 19-year-old back in 2004, it’s been difficult to get an accurate gauge on John Sutton.
Many have tried. His natural talent is unquestioned, his back-rower’s frame hard to contain and the sharp, straightening left-foot step that he developed by watching Brad Fittler has breached many a defensive line, but he has also had his critics.
They struggled to work out if he was lazy or merely a shy, gentle giant who was unsure of whether he should impose himself on a game.
But there has been a change in Sutton over the past 12 months, both on and off the field. His daughter, Pippi, celebrated her first birthday on the eve of her daddy’s team’s win over North Queensland last Saturday night and new coach Michael Maguire has come to the Rabbitohs with no preconceptions about his personality or role within the playing group.
“Obviously I’d seen him play and everyone had their own opinions on how he played but I came in with the mindset that I was going to give him a fresh start and I’ve been very impressed,” Maguire tells Big League.
“Throughout the pre-season he was one of the best trainers and you could see that he really wanted to improve as a player, so that’s what I’m working off at the moment and he does that [every week] for us.”
With two rookie No.7s on his playing roster Maguire knew all too well that Sutton would need to be a dominant presence at five-eighth, both literally and figuratively, if his halves combination was going to function effectively.
“The way he goes about things on the park and at training, he definitely pushes the team around the park as a leader,” Maguire says of one of his five co-captains. “They’ve all got their own little roles of what they do and everyone’s got their own personality but ‘Sutto’ is probably one of those players who leads a lot through his actions. He is developing a hell of a lot with his talk around the park and off the field, which is a really impressive part of his game.
“We spoke about various areas that we wanted to improve and [his talk] was one of them. He said that himself. We’ve worked hard at that and that’s been coming out in games in the way he’s been playing.”
His halves partner in all eight games to start the season, Adam Reynolds, also insists that Sutton is unquestionably the on-field general for the Rabbitohs.
“He’s very dominant on the field, always talking and always leading us around the park,” Reynolds says. “At training he’s really good, always giving me tips and helping me with my own game. He just gives me advice on things I do well and little tips on straightening and things like that.”
The change in Sutton is indicative of the change that is sweeping through Redfern, a self‑belief that has been absent ever since the club completed the minor premiers-wooden spooners double in 1989-1990. They are only 4-4 through eight rounds but tough wins against the Bulldogs and Cowboys in the past three games suggest that elusive winning culture is being grasped by the men in red and green.
“In the past we’ve let ourselves down, we’ve got to leads and other teams have run us down but we’re starting a new culture here,” Sutton says. “‘Madge’ is working really hard on us not to give games away. He is trying to bring that winning culture and everyone is just working hard on trying to change that around.”
But perhaps the biggest change for Sutton has come off the field, where he has swapped nightclubbing for nappy-changing.
“Before she was here I probably went out a lot more and partying but she has really settled me down and I love her to bits,” Sutton says of his daughter. “She and my missus [Stacey Shumack] are the best things that have ever happened to me. I’m really enjoying [fatherhood] and hopefully it brings the best out for my footy.”