5 burning questions: Rabbitohs
For the first time in more than four decades the Rabbitohs head into a pre-season as the defending premiers but how can coach Michael Maguire ensure they are more than just one-hit wonders? Finding answers to these questions will be key.
1. Can the shoes of Sam Burgess be filled?
When Rabbitohs royalty John Sattler and Bob McCarthy are declaring a bloke one of the best forwards to don the cardinal and myrtle in 106 years, he's going to take some replacing. Handily enough for Michael Maguire, George and Tom Burgess are somehow actually bigger than elder brother Sam, and each turned in their best performances of their young careers in the Grand Final. Neither possess the ball-playing ability of Sam but for sheer grunt work alone the 22-year-old twins (yep, take a moment and think about what you looked like at 22, then compare it to these two monsters) will ensure the Bunnies' engine room runs smoothly. The addition of 30-year-old Glenn Stewart (his susceptibility to injury aside) provides a ball-playing option to complement skipper John Sutton in the pack, while Tim Grant is another rep-quality big man and too good to have stayed wallowing in NSW Cup. Grant will be a welcome addition to Maguire's prop rotation and should make a fair fist of it.
2. And what of replacing fellow rugby-bound forward Ben Te'o?
Believe it or not, here's where the Rabbits might struggle to replace a rugby union bound forward. Te'o, aside from being one of the straightest shooters in the game and an underrated positive influence on his younger teammates, is one hell of a wide-running second-rower and would probably be lining up to collect his first Kangaroos jumper were he not already getting stuck into his two-year stint with Irish rugby club Leinster. Te'o added plenty of starch to the red and green defensive line and led from the front when they were down 12-0 against the Chooks after eight minutes in the Grand Final qualifier. Stewart is a very different back-rower to Te'o, likewise youngster Kyle Turner. Sutton plays in a slightly similar vein to the now former Maroons forward but the most likely to fill Te'o's role as an athletic enforcer is Chris McQueen, who had a solid, but hardly spectacular 2014, and wants his starting spot back.
3. Will they still have the hunger after enjoying a premiership feast 43 years in the making?
The last team to snap a title drought approaching a similar length to the one just ended by the Rabbitohs was Wayne Bennett's St George Illawarra side in 2010. The trophy cabinet at Kogarah had been bare for 30 years prior, and Bennett created a side that had a limited window of two to three years in which to jag an elusive premiership. Within a year the supercoach was off to Newcastle and the Dragons have burnt through another coach on their way to three consecutive underwhelming finishes on the wrong side of the top eight. The shelf life of Maguire's squad is markedly healthier than that which wore the Red V under Bennett, but it's almost inevitable that at some point next year the Bunnies will feel the effects of a premiership hangover. How they handle that, heeding the example set most recently by the Roosters who claimed back-to-back minor premierships, will be the mark of Maguire.
4. Can they retain all those crack youngsters who are coming off contract and hunting for a raise?
The shelf life of Maguire's side is so healthy due to the abundance of young talent the Rabbits have unearthed and nurtured over the course of his reign. Adam Reynolds, Luke Keary, Dylan Walker, Alex Johnston, Kirosome Auva'a, Turner and the Burgess twins are all under the age of 25 and all either already playing rep footy or set to do so in the near future. Trouble is all of them bar Walker and George Burgess are coming off contract at the end of 2015, and with a premiership ring to bump up their market value; Souths might not be able to keep them all in the Burrow beyond next season.
5. What about the wrestle?
No side came under the microscope of the match review committee quite like the Rabbitohs in 2014, particularly over the back-end of the year when they asserted themselves as the dominant team in the league. Ben Te'o, George Burgess, Issac Luke, Kirisome Auva'a and Chris McQueen were all cited for either crusher or chicken wing tackles over the last two months of the competition and the chatter and speculation steadily grew over the Bunnies' wrestling tactics and their controlling of the ruck. By no means were the Rabbitohs the only offenders when it came to illegal tactics, but there was a fair amount of currency between Souths topping pretty much all the key defensive categories and also providing five of the 16 players charged for banned wrestling manoeuvres between Round 21 and the Grand Final. Maguire publicly stated that his side practiced legal wrestling tactics and admitted they worked to clean their act up as the charges piled up. How the NRL handles the rise of the wrestle in 2015 and the effect that has on the premiers has us thinking this won't be the last we hear on the issue.