Rabbitohs 2014 Season Preview
After flattering only to deceive for the previous two seasons, the "building to something" line no longer holds any water for the Bunnies. Head coach Michael Maguire has taken the side to consecutive top-four finishes (third in 2012, second in 2013) with several key players now established squad members.
2013 was meant to be Souths' year: Greg Inglis, Adam Reynolds, Issac Luke and John Sutton were all in career-best form, and a pack stacked with Burgesses was battering opponents into submission, relentlessly smashing teams both physically and psychologically.
But for the second successive year it all unravelled in the Grand Final qualifier. In 2012 it was a fast-finishing Ben Barba-inspired Bulldogs outfit that proved too good, and last year it was a battered and weary Manly side that simply refused to lie down, refused to go away, refused to read the form guide or play from the script, that outlasted the more fancied Bunnies to earn a shot at the Sydney Roosters on the first Sunday in October.
Souths won't have it all their own way in 2014 - they've seen a host of prop forwards and outside backs depart over the off-season, and the shock news of Sam Burgess's impending departure at the end of the year is the last thing Maguire needed coming into a new season. But every team has seen roster changes and with so many key men still in place it seems to be now or never.
Gains: Joel Reddy (Wests Tigers), Joe Picker (Raiders), Chris Grevsmuhl (Cowboys), Kirisome Auva'a (Storm), Lote Tuqiri (Leinster, Irish rugby union).
Losses: Nathan Peats (Eels), Roy Asotasi (Warrington Wolves), Matt King (retired), Michael Crocker (retired), Andrew Everingham (Japanese rugby), Justin Hunt (Eels), Dylan Farrell (Dragons), Josh Starling (Sea Eagles), Christian Hazard (Titans), Jeff Lima (Catalans Dragons), Mitchell Buckett (Wynnum Manly), Tyrone Phillips (Bulldogs), Daniel Smith (Wakefield), Fetuli Talanoa (Hull).
How They'll Play It
The biggest change-up from the formula that was mostly effective last year is likely to be the switch of hulking pivot John Sutton into the forward pack. Unfortunately his planned replacement, young gun Luke Keary, will spend most of the year on the injured list but that could open the door for someone like Dylan Walker. Up front expect more of the same from the Burgess rotation and the usual service from 'GI' at the back.
Expect HUGE Things From
Can George Burgess get any better? The man formerly known as "Sam's little brother" was a destructive revelation in 2013 as he repeatedly carried piles of defenders downfield on his hulking shoulders, his tree trunk legs pumping him ever forward towards the opposition tryline. Time and again last year (when Burgess wasn't barging over the tryline or stretching out his big right arm to score himself) the Bunnies scored on the play after one of his massive carries, as scattered defensive lines scrambled back into position. There may be dark clouds hanging over Sam's future in the NRL as English rugby beckons but if anything that just heaps more responsibility on George to lead the new-look forward pack.
Oh, and did we mention George has a twin brother? Tom played nine times towards the back end of last year and the early signs suggest he may well be able to replicate his twin's form. If you watched any North Sydney Bears NSW Cup games over the first half of 2013 you'd have been rubbing your eyes wondering if you were seeing things, as someone who looked a lot like George Burgess was doing things that looked like something only George Burgess could do, only in North Sydney colours. It was enough to convince Maguire to haul Tom into first grade, and for England to pick him in their World Cup side. If Souths end up with both twins performing at their peak, things will be mighty tough for any side trying to stop them.
The Question Marks
The obvious one is the new-look halves combination. With Keary out will Walker partner Reynolds or will Sutton have to head back there? Up front the departures of Roy Asotasi, Jeff Lima and Josh Starling mean the squad is extremely light on for prop forwards whose last name isn't 'Burgess'. Dave Tyrell is still around and former Cowboy Chris Grevsmuhl looks a prospect but their depth in that position will be tested. The losses of Andrew Everingham, Matt King, Dylan Farrell and Justin Hunt mean a new-look three-quarter line.
Who Needs To Lift?
Given the side finished a shade away from the minor premiership it was hardly a floundering effort from the cardinal and myrtle. If anyone needs to "lift" it's probably those on the first grade fringes who will be taking on more responsibility in 2014 - Dave Tyrell only saw limited minutes last year but will be looking to improve on his 60 metres and 17 tackles per game, and Tom Burgess will certainly be looking to up his involvement - although his 109 metres per game from limited minutes in 2013 is a frightening omen for opposition, as it's well behind what brothers Sam (147 metres) and George (139 metres) racked up in 2013.
How's Their Depth?
The Rabbitohs aren't the deepest squad going round this year - as mentioned the departures from the front row and three-quarter line are an issue. The injury to Keary means the halves are already stretched and if any of Reynolds, Luke or Inglis go down they'll be in fairly dire straits. Their best 17 is very strong and there is some competition for fringe places but it falls away fairly quickly after that. With Inglis, Te'o, Chris McQueen and potentially Adam Reynolds in the Origin frame, rep season could present a challenge also.
NRL Fantasy Bankers
Greg Inglis ($394,400) has been a Fantasy revelation since his move to fullback two years ago, while Adam Reynolds ($393,900) quickly shot from cash cow to keeper after his debut. John Sutton ($380,900) was great last year but it remains to be seen how a likely move to the forwards (with the potential for reduced minutes) will affect his scoring. As non-Australians Sam Burgess ($376,700), Issac Luke ($357,900) and George Burgess ($357,200) all present appealing options over Origin.
The only pressure Maguire is under is the weight of expectation from one of the NRL's largest and most desperate supporter bases. 'Madge' recently signed a three-year contract extension keeping him at the club until the end of 2017 so in terms of job security, he has it in bucketloads. But for a club that hasn't won a title since 1971, he'll definitely feel the pressure of trying to deliver Redfern's first premiership in over four decades.
The South Sydney NYC side has scraped into the finals in the past two seasons, but have been bundled out in the first week on both occasions. Last year's captain, hooker and Holden Cup Team of the Year representative Cameron McInnes is back for another year, while in terms of famous last names, keep an eye out for Bronson Garlick, son of former club captain Sean, who also plays predominantly at hooker.
Like we said there are no excuses for Souths this year, and fans will be hoping third time's the charm if the side can make it to the week before the Grand Final again. There's no reason to think they can't - we'll slot them in for a top-two finish again in 2014.
1. Greg Inglis, 2. Nathan Merritt, 3. Beau Champion, 4. Bryson Goodwin, 5. Dylan Walker, 6. Luke Keary*, 7. Adam Reynolds, 8. Sam Burgess, 9. Issac Luke, 10. Dave Tyrrell, 11. Chris McQueen, 12. Ben Te'o, 13. John Sutton. Interchange: 14. George Burgess, 15. Tom Burgess, 16. Ben Lowe, 17. Jason Clark.
*The possible long-term injury to Keary would mean either Walker going to 6 with Tuqiri or Reddy joining the three-quarter line, or Sutton moving back to the halves with Joe Picker, Luke Burgess or Kyle Turner joining the bench or a reshuffled pack.