Rabbitohs' 2014 season review
"You never think it's going to be possible but it's that thing long in the distance that you always dream of. It's unbelievable."
Slumped in the corner of the South Sydney dressing sheds cradling his baby girl with his wife by his side, the realisation that the Rabbitohs were the premiers for 2014 was harder for Jason Clark to come to terms with than most.
A devastated 10-year-old when South Sydney were kicked out of the competition in 1999, Clark marched with the family now celebrating his premiership triumph to the steps of Town Hall fighting to have the team they loved so dearly readmitted into the National Rugby League.
"That was a hard time. You don't have a team to support... I cried then and I cried today. Sam crying on the big screen, that got me, looking at my family brought tears to my eyes, and when all our boys came out onto the field..."
The storylines surrounding South Sydney's 21st premiership season began back in February when inspirational English forward Sam Burgess announced that he would be leaving the Rabbitohs early to play rugby union back in England and carried through until the first weeks of October.
John Sutton became the most capped Rabbitoh in the club's history, Nathan Merritt surpassed Benny Wearing as the club's greatest ever try-scorer and a kid by the name of Alex Johnston swept into first grade in Round 8 and scored 21 tries in his first 18 games in the NRL.
Luke Keary's elevation into the South Sydney No.6 was delayed 16 weeks by a pectoral injury, Ben Te'o missed a month courtesy of a non-Colonel endorsed chicken wing and Issac Luke, after 168 games for the red and green, was suspended for the grand final due to a lifting tackle.
A three-match losing streak early in the year forced some to question whether the premiership window had closed prematurely but as the momentum built through the middle of the season so too did the sense of destiny.
Whether by design or divine intervention coach Michael Maguire timed his team's run into the big games perfectly and their display in the first 56 minutes against Manly in Week One of the finals series to lead 40-0 gave them confidence and a much-needed week off.
Their preliminary final display against the Roosters was awe-inspiring and when the Bulldogs edged past the Panthers and into the decider from seventh position, 43 years of heartache sat squarely on South Sydney shoulders.
They won 30-6, but it was by no means that easy, and the emotion-charged scenes in the aftermath were unlike anything the game had seen since perhaps Newcastle's triumph in 1997.
But this was a win for the ages, a win for all ages and a win that took an age to be realised, but boy oh boy, was it worth the wait.
Where They Excelled: Their youthful backline may have electrified fans over the second half of the season but South Sydney's great strength in 2014 was in their ability to restrict the attacking opportunities of their opposition. Their 528 missed tackles were the fewest in the NRL (the Titans missed 882) and their defence gave up the least number of offloads, line breaks, tries and try assists; little wonder then that their 361 points conceded was a league best and their best return since readmission into the competition in 2002.
Where They Struggled: Statistically there were few black marks on South Sydney's season but it was clear in the early rounds that the power game that had served them so well in the previous two seasons was no longer enough. Opposition teams were often the first to score and when they found themselves behind on the scoreboard there wasn't the firepower to reel them in. That seemed to shift in Round 9 when Dylan Walker, Kirosome Auva'a and Alex Johnston scored all seven tries in the 40-18 defeat of the Titans with the trio scoring 42 tries between them in 2014. Slow starts were a problem for the Bunnies but their growing belief as the season progressed enabled them to dig their way out.
Missing In Action: Luke Keary (16 weeks), Issac Luke (eight) and John Sutton (five) were all missing through injury at various stages of the season but the Rabbitohs got through 2014 using only 27 players, the third fewest in NRL. Having trained at five-eighth all pre-season, the loss of Keary at the Auckland Nines became significant more in hindsight as his return in Round 17 added an extra dimension to the Rabbitohs attack.
Turning Point: Coach Michael Maguire knew that in order to take his team to the next level he needed to introduce a new element to their attack but the loss of Keary before the season even started sent him back to the drawing board. The use of Dylan Walker at five-eighth worked wonders in a Round 1 spanking of the defending premiers but three consecutive losses thereafter showed that the still 19-year-old was perhaps not quite ready for the added responsibility. So in Round 5 the Bunnies went back to what they know best, with Sutton rejoining Reynolds in the halves and powering through the middle of the Sydney Cricket Ground to steamroll the Dragons 26-6. It wasn't their prettiest win of the season but it brought back that winning feeling that they carried all the way until the very end.
Best Games: Down 12-0 as the Roosters added points as quick as the time ticked over on the clock, the Rabbitohs were staring down the barrel of a third straight exit one week short of the NRL Grand Final. It would have been a crippling loss on so many levels but they regrouped, levelled things by half-time and scored 32 unanswered points in total on their way to a 32-22 win over their arch rivals. Their 23-4 win over the high-flying Sea Eagles at the SCG in Round 22 was similarly important to their premiership belief and which they backed up with utter dominance in Week One of the finals. In terms of courage it was hard to go past the Round 13 win over the Warriors in Perth where Inglis, Goodwin and Clark were forced from the field and Walker played on with a broken thumb and the biggest win of 2014 came in Round 21 with a "predictable" 50-10 shellacking of the Knights.
Worst Games: We can call it character building now but when South Sydney lost a third straight game at the hands of the Raiders in Round 4, questions about their premiership credentials were being asked. Ahead of only the Knights and the Sharks on the competition table, the manner of this defeat was sending alarming bells ringing throughout Redfern. Down 22-0 at half-time, the best defence in the NRL for 2014 looked anything but as the Raiders ran roughshod in the opening 40 minutes. They were similarly caught on the hop when the Cowboys scored three tries in the opening 10 minutes in Round 16 while two Origin-depleted teams put on a forgettable performance when the Titans caused a 14-10 upset in Round 17 at ANZ Stadium.
Hold Your Head High: Even prior to his grand final heroics there was a sense of destiny about what Sam Burgess was intent on achieving in 2014. Having announced that this would be his last run around Redfern for the forseeable future, Burgess took himself off the drink, stayed out of the social pages and willed this mighty club to a long-awaited premiership. No player made more metres (4386) or was tackled more often (431) while James Graham pipped him for most hit-ups and Corey Parker for most offloads. But the numbers are not what defines Sam Burgess. He inspires his teammates on a weekly basis with the physical punishment he subjects himself to for the sake of the cause and somehow in the off-season the premiers need to find a new spiritual leader to take up his mantle.
Conclusion: Being somewhat blown off the park by the Roosters in Round 26 could have proven to be the mental stumbling block that carried the drought into a 44th year but perhaps it was the manner in which they finished that game that solidified belief in the squad. To be the best you have to beat the best and although they met the Roosters again perhaps one week earlier than anticipated, from the moment they hit the front in the 44th minute there was a sense of inevitability that the dam wall was going to burst and flood Sydney in a sea of red and green. Premiership windows stay open so little in the modern game and with the departures of Burgess and Te'o at the end of 2014, the 'Pride of the League' cashed in at exactly the right time.
Coming: Glenn Stewart (Sea Eagles), Tim Grant (Panthers), Cody Walker (Storm)
Going: Sam Burgess (rugby union), Ben Te'o (rugby union), Beau Champion (Eels), Apisai Koroisau (Panthers), Nathan Merritt (retired), Joe Picker (retired)
Home Record: 7 wins, 5 losses (equal 8th)
Away Record: 8 wins, 4 losses (1st)
Longest Winning Streak: 5 (Rounds 19-23)
Longest Losing Streak: 3 (Rounds 2-4)
Players Used: 27
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 101 (4th)
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 63 (1st)