South Sydney Rabbitohs Season Preview
The Rabbitohs have been on a sharp upward curve since Michael Maguire's appointment as head coach in 2012. And after two years as defeated semi-finalists they famously went all the way last year, ending that 43-year drought with a bruising finals campaign after finishing third on the ladder.
They may have lost a couple of massive names from the forward pack but an explosive pre-season has many tipping the Bunnies to be the first side to go back-to-back in a unified competition since the 1992-93 Broncos.
Gains and losses
Gains: Glenn Stewart (Sea Eagles), Tim Grant (Panthers), Cody Walker (Storm), Angus Crichton (Schoolboys Rugby), Nathan Brown (Wests Tigers).
Losses: Sam Burgess (rugby union), Ben Te'o (rugby union), Beau Champion (Eels), Apisai Koroisau (Panthers), Nathan Merritt (retired), Luke Burgess (Sea Eagles).
No doubt Clive Churchill medallist Sam Burgess will be a massive loss, as will Ben Te'o, and the addition of former Kangaroo and Sea Eagle Glenn Stewart will only go part way to alleviating that. It's still a very strong squad on paper though.
What we know
We know the Bunnies have exploded out of the blocks in the pre-season, sweeping the Auckland Nines undefeated and absolutely monstering Super League champs St Helens in the World Club Challenge. It's no guarantee of anything once the season kicks off but it's a great sign that Maguire has his troops refocused ahead of another long campaign. We also know halfback Adam Reynolds is in the process of stamping himself as one of the great playmakers of the competition, and explosive prop George Burgess is at the peak of his powers following a man-of-the-match effort against St Helens.
One of the big unknowns is how Maguire's men will handle defending a premiership, rather than chasing one. The Roosters went into 2014 with a virtually identical squad to the one that took the 2013 season by storm but never quite hit the same heights.
How they will fill the enormous hole in the back row is another looming question. Stewart well and truly lives up to his nickname of 'Gifty' and will be a huge asset, while Sutton is also a talented ball player, but it will fall to the likes of George and Tom Burgess to replace Sam's explosive hit-ups. They have some holes to fill in the backline with Lote Tuqiri retired and grand final winner Kirisome Auva'a to sit out most of the season through suspension. Bryson Goodwin is a quality player and certain to start the season, and Joel Reddy has been good in the pre-season, but as usual there are a host of young outside backs that will press their claims as the season progresses.
Speaking off... centre Aaron Gray and wingers Setefano Taukafa and Sam Manuleleuacould each play first grade at some stage after getting their chances in the trials. Chris Grevsmuhl doesn't seem like a rookie anymore having already won an Auckland Nines title, Indigenous All Stars game and World Club Challenge trophy, as well as helping his club retain the Charity Shield. But he's yet to play first grade and is one serious rookie to watch in 2015.
Room for improvement
As you'd imagine in a team defending the premiership there isn't too much that requires improvement. Souths were the third-best attacking team last year (after the Roosters and Cowboys) and the best defensive team. Obviously new boys Glenn Stewart and Tim Grant will be hoping for better years than they had last year, and Maguire will likely be looking for improvement out of Queensland forward Chris McQueen (especially following the departures of Sam Burgess and Ben Te'o) given he only averaged 70 metres and 18 tackles from his 20 games, with just four tries and six line breaks.
The club has options in every position but can ill-afford an injury to Reynolds or Inglis, or George Burgess for that matter. Former NYC skipper Cam McInnes provides back-up to Issac Luke and Sutton, Cody Walker and Daryl Millard provide options in the halves while Alex Johnston would likely shift to fullback in Inglis's absence; there will also be plenty of forwards jostling for spots.
Adam Reynolds ($476,000) isn't just the Bunnies' most expensive player, he could be set to be one of the form Fantasy players of 2015, as the halfback and goal kicker in a powerful attacking team. George Burgess ($437,000) is already an elite Fantasy forward but could get even better in the absence of his brother Sam. Greg Inglis ($426,000) is the second-most expensive winger/fullback in Fantasy and always a safe option at the back.
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Michael Maguire's job couldn't be safer. He did good things over in England with Wigan and the Rabbitohs have been on a stunning upward curve ever since his appointment in 2012. He's getting the best out of his players and is defending an NRL premiership, having already won the Auckland Nines and World Club Challenge this year. Happy days.
We were a little worried the premiership comedown and loss of Sam Burgess could bring the Bunnies back to the midfield in 2015 but early signs (and they are only very early signs) are that that won't be the case. They should be well in the mix come September, and should be strong enough to secure another top-four finish ahead of the finals. NRL.com prediction: 2nd.