According to the Rabbitohs’ stars, the depth of playing talent at the club is outstanding, with forward Jeff Lima even going so far as to label the playing pool and potential at Redfern as better than that at reigning premiers Melbourne.
Souths, on top of the ladder following 11 victories, enter the match against Parramatta without the services of Origin stars Greg Inglis, Nathan Merritt, Chris McQueen and Ben Te’o, injured trio Michael Crocker, Beau Champion and Matt King, and the stood-down George Burgess.
However, former Storm forward Lima, a three-time grand final representative with Melbourne, says there are no excuses for a poor performance this week with the available players at their disposal under Souths’ renowned hard-marking coach Michael Maguire.
“[The potential at Souths] is better, to be honest,” Lima says of comparisons with Melbourne.
“What ‘Madge’ (Maguire) has brought here… it’s helping us to be the best team in the competition.”
Lima arrived in Redfern at the start of the season after rejecting an offer to rejoin the Storm following a stint in Super League. According to the stocky front-rower, the move has been everything he’d hoped for.
“It’s exactly what I came here for,” Lima says. “They’re going well and what Madge brings to the team is that hard-working effort for everyone. You know he’s doing a good job – it’s what I expected this time last year that Souths would go well.
“[Maguire’s] the first one in here and the last one to leave, as a player coming in early in the morning and seeing Madge doing the hard work it just makes you feel really welcome.”
This week the first-placed Rabbitohs field a host of inexperienced players in their side to take on the last-placed Eels. Justin Hunt comes into the team at fullback to replace Inglis; Dylan Walker earns another start in the centres; Thomas Burgess makes his NRL debut; while Luke Keary and Josh Starling retain their spots on the bench. With just 21 games’ NRL experience between those five players – and the Rabbitohs’ biggest stars missing – the Eels could feel an upset is on the cards.
“I’m sure [Parramatta] would be [fancying their chances] with ‘GI’, Benny Te’o, Chrissy McQueen and Nathan Merritt missing out the back – they’re going to be a big losses to us – but we’re lucky we’ve got great depth at the club… those boys will be going out there looking forward to getting a chance and playing some first grade football,” Souths forward Ben Lowe says.
“Justin Hunt has been 18th man a few times this year and he’s been really itching to get out there and do his thing. He’s a great young player and he’s got a lot of speed and will be looking forward to the challenge. Young Luke Keary, who’s been in there the last couple of weeks, has been really stepping up and doing the job which has been fantastic… and Tommy Burgess on debut will be looking to live up to the Burgess name.”
Tom Burgess steps into the NRL side after brother George was stood down for two matches following an incident in Cairns last weekend. Lowe, though, feels the rookie replacement will do just as good a job as his rampaging sibling has done so far in 2013.
“George brings a lot to the bench for us obviously but we’ve got Tommy who’s just as big and brings a lot of enthusiasm,” Lowe says.
“It’s his first game this week and I’m looking forward to seeing him go around.
“He’s a big boy, he’s very strong, athletic and I think he’ll be a great asset to the team.”
Twins George and Tom could even fool their opposition in the coming weeks, with most Rabbitohs players initially struggling to separate them – on and off the field.
“When they first arrived at the club it was hard to tell them apart but after a couple of months training in the off-season you kind of start figuring the different traits they have,” veteran forward Roy Asotasi says.
“[Tom’s] similar to George – they’re twins – I don’t think they differ much but all the Burgess boys have that same attribute of being just hard nuts. They’ll just cart the ball up and that’s something we love to see.
“George is probably a lot slimmer and leaner than Tom and Tom is a lot bigger. That’s the only big difference.”
Halfback Adam Reynolds – himself somewhat unlucky to miss out on Origin selection for NSW – insists the main difference in his table-topping team’s performance this year is the “drive” last year’s taste of finals football has given the side.
“I think [last year has] definitely made us hungrier,” Reynolds says.
“We went so close last year and after that game all the boys were disappointed we didn’t make the grand final. The hunger’s there in the belly and it’s given that drive to try a bit harder this year.”
This week, though, as the Rabbitohs continue to tell you, their focus is solely on the Eels. They expect nothing but a tough game – even if they’re very confident of victory.
“They’re pretty big,” Lima says of the Eels team. “Fuifui… Tim Mannah… Mitchell Allgood – all those fellas they’re big boys and they’ll be up for a game on Sunday. They’re not going too good but I know when you’re chasing a good team you’re always up for a good game.”
They may be without eight regular first-graders for their match this week, but South Sydney players insist there are no valid reasons for anything but a victory by “the best team in the competition” in their clash with the Eels on Sunday afternoon.