Rabbitohs' Road To The Finals
Best laid plans...
Recognising that he was too exciting a talent to spend another year with North Sydney in the NSW Cup competition, South Sydney coach Michael Maguire hatched a plan over the off-season to partner Luke Keary with Adam Reynolds in the halves and shift John Sutton into the forward pack. Months of training went out the window in an instant when Keary tore his pectoral muscle on day two of the Auckland Nines, halting the evolution of Maguire's men if only temporarily. Rather than going back to Sutton, however, Maguire promoted Dylan Walker to a more prominent role at five-eighth to start the season before going back to his captain in Round 5 after his side had dropped three on the trot.
Say it ain't so, Sam
Having earned a special place in the hearts of South Sydney supporters with his whole-hearted displays since joining the club in 2010, Sam Burgess sent shockwaves from the centre of Redfern to the northern hemisphere when he announced in February that he would be leaving the club at the end of the season. When the 2014 campaign comes to a close Burgess will return to England to play rugby union with Bath but ever since the announcement he has embodied an athlete intent on going out on the best possible note. The socialising has been cut back and the media commitments restricted in order to give the greatest possible shove to South Sydney's premiership push, with many pundits predicting a Dally M award to go with it.
GI goes berserk and maintains the rage
Having exited the 2013 Finals Series in such disappointing fashion and with an injured Greg Inglis below his best, South Sydney's superstar fullback made an emphatic statement in the very first game of the season. Down 6-0 to arch rivals the Roosters after just 12 minutes, Inglis hit back when he simply barged through three Roosters defenders to score his first try of 2014 and then he doubled his tally early in the second half, cutting back on the angle from a Ben Te'o offload. He went back to the power game for his third of the night in Souths' 28-8 win but none of those compared with what was to come in later rounds.
Fond memories at old stomping ground
Having disposed of the defending premiers in such commanding fashion in Round 1, the Rabbitohs looked decidedly vulnerable when they returned to the Sydney Cricket Ground for Heritage Round against the Dragons in Round 5. In the three weeks prior they had suffered defeats at the hands of the Sea Eagles, Wests Tigers and Raiders and had only the Knights and Sharks below them on the ladder. But back on the great old dame of Australian sport the Bunnies reverted to the power game that had served them so well and dominated territory and possession in their 26-6 win, the Dragons' only try coming in the final seven minutes of the game. It wasn't the Rabbitohs' best win of the season but by gee it was an important one.
Wrestling with a bad rap
Five charges by the match review committee in the space of two weeks for indiscretions associated with the wrestling manoeuvres now prevalent in the game caused some to question whether the Rabbitohs were taking their quest for ruck control to dangerous extremes. Ben Te'o was outed for four games for a 'chicken-wing' tackle on Sam Thaiday in Round 23 while George Burgess, Chris McQueen, Kirisome Auva'a and Issac Luke all ended up on the rap sheet late in the season. Although Thaiday was quick to defend his Queensland Origin teammate and admitted that every team was using similar tactics, it brought unwanted attention to the Rabbitohs as they continued to firm in premiership betting.
Walker's on all right
The Queenslanders might have cause to reprise Nathan Brown's famous "Walker's on" cries of Origin games past if Dylan Walker's ascension in the NRL continues on its heady path. Showing no signs of any second-year syndrome, Walker looked dangerous in his cameo at five-eighth to start the season but a whole lot more comfortable once he returned to the centres. He tore the Titans to shreds in Round 9 with a four-try display and scored two tries and ran for 207 metres against the Warriors before suffering a thumb injury. He has developed a lethal combination with winger Alex Johnston and has had good judges in raptures about his Origin prospects for the future.
The story has been told on almost as many occasions as he has scored first grade tries but it is worth repeating here for posterity: Alex Johnston once played a young Greg Inglis in an NRL commercial; now he emulates him by scoring bucket-loads of four-pointers. A 19-year-old rookie when handed his first grade debut in Round 8, Johnston crossed for five tries in his opening three games and has maintained that strike-rate all the way through to the finals. He scored eight tries in the space of four games from Round 19-22 and has accumulated a total of 17 tries in 15 NRL games in 2014 to come right into Rookie of the Year reckoning. A beautifully elegant speedster, Johnston's preferred position is actually fullback, but there is a man with whom he is very familiar currently standing in his way.
Sutton, Merritt reach magic milestones
They've had little chance to add to their records in the time since but two players who will go down as South Sydney legends notched impressive milestones during the season. Captain John Sutton was the first to record a significant individual milestone when he overtook Bob McCarthy to become the most capped Rabbitoh in the club's proud history – fittingly at the SCG in Round 5. A week later Nathan Merritt became the club's greatest ever try-scorer when he went past Benny Wearing's mark of 144 tries in Round 6 against the Panthers. He was dropped two weeks later before earning a recall during the Origin period but hasn't been sighted in the top grade since Round 17.
Try, try again
They can't say they didn't know it was coming. In Round 8 Broncos defenders were scattered like hapless minions when Greg Inglis scorched his way on an 89-metre run to the tryline in what seemed a lock for try of the season, and then he did it again. The first breathtaking try was a solo effort where Inglis beat Parker, Hunt, McCullough, Kennedy, Copley and Maranta to absolutely light up Suncorp Stadium and he was at it again when the two sides met at ANZ Stadium in Round 23. Adam Reynolds took the ball just his side of halfway and put in a perfectly-weighted chip for a flying Inglis to collect on the Broncos' 30m line. A split second later he crashed into Josh Hoffman, left Ben Hunt and Matt Gillett sprawled on the turf, kept his feet and his balance to send a pass to Sam Burgess and then when the big Englishman powered to within five metres of the line and flung the ball out in hope, it was Inglis wrapping around to charge onto the ball, score untouched and move straight into his goanna try celebration, fittingly in Close the Gap Round. You pick your favourite, we simply can't split them.
Reynolds, Keary unlock new combination
He got a taste of life as the Rabbitohs five-eighth in Round 17 but it wasn't until Round 21 – five months after their partnership was due to begin – that Luke Keary joined Adam Reynolds in the South Sydney halves. The impact was immediate – a 50-10 thrashing of the Knights – and soon commentators were wondering how John Sutton would force his way back into the team upon his return from injury. In the space of five weeks he contributed four line-break assists and three try assists as the Bunnies knocked over the Knights, Sea Eagles, Broncos and Bulldogs, his speed on the left edge benefiting both Greg Inglis and Chris McQueen. Adam Reynolds has responded well to being the senior partner also with his kicking game and decision making integral to South Sydney's strong finish. Both men are brave in defence and look set for a long and fruitful partnership.
Knights to the sword
After watching the Rabbitohs post 10 tries on his side in the northern clime in Cairns, Knights coach Wayne Bennett lit a media fuse when he suggested that South Sydney were a predictable footy team. While there is no question that Souths have worked to a set structure for much of Michael Maguire's reign the carefree nature of their 50-10 win over Newcastle highlighted the flair flowing throughout the three-quarter line. Walker, Auva'a and Johnston all produced breathtaking pieces of play while Inglis and McQueen seemed to revel in the exuberance around them.
Pass mark for big tests
The Rabbitohs' final five games of the regular season were against teams who would all eventually finish in the top eight but despite a record of 3-2 over that period there were just as many questions as answers. Utterly dominant displays against the Sea Eagles and Broncos had Rabbitohs fans booking their Grand Final accommodation but the Cowboys took complete control of their Round 24 clash in Sydney to register their second win over South Sydney for the season. The Bulldogs made them fight until the final minutes before recording a 21-14 victory and then with the minor premiership still on the table the Roosters raced to a 22-2 lead before a late resurgence got the Rabbitohs within four. It's yet to be seen whether the Bunnies truly believe they have what it takes to win the big games.