A strong culture has kept South Sydney's chances of a successful premiership defence alive but former NRL coach Matt Elliott says that won't be enough once the finals series gets underway.
Having struggled to dispose of the Panthers and then losing convincingly to the Sea Eagles last Friday night, the Rabbitohs face another tough assignment on Thursday night when they travel to Townsville to take on the Cowboys.
It's the first in a month of games against top opposition that puts their current position in the top four under serious threat but in this week's issue of Big League Elliott says it is a wonderful achievement by coach Michael Maguire to have them so high on the ladder given the euphoria surrounding their grand final win last year.
"Currently in fourth position, the Rabbitohs have not played anywhere near their best football for quite some time, but still find a way to win enough games to have them in a perfect position to contend for the trophy again," Elliott says in the Round 23 issue of Big League.
"So how is it that a team like this finds a way to graft their way to victories when not playing their best football?
"The answer is obvious if you watch them carefully: As teammates, these guys are genuinely close and they care deeply about the club and the team.
"When someone does something special in a game, teammates sprint from all parts of the field to congratulate them and when interviewed they very rarely talk about themselves, instead preferring to focus on the team and the ways in which they can improve as a whole.
"For those who just think this just happens and it’s a part of playing footy, you’re wrong.
"Michael Maguire is not just a smart football coach, he also has systems in place to develop this culture at the highest level and that involves high-level expertise.
"South Sydney know the unity that has held them together won’t win them the title, so they need to find their best performance throughout the final weeks, but their mateship is central to giving them the opportunity to win again."
The other team building a charge towards September on the back of a united playing group according to Elliott is Cronulla, who host the Storm on Monday night in a game that will have major ramifications for both teams' top-four hopes.
A club that was in danger of being torn apart two years ago in the wake of the supplements scandal has now won eight of their past nine matches including away wins in Townsville, Auckland, Canberra and at Belmore.
"Cronulla have come out of a couple of years of real adversity and are finding ways to win against tough opposition because they are happy and enjoying playing," says Elliott.
"This crew have dug in for each other repeatedly this season and found ways to ‘win ugly’. By doing this their confidence has grown and it has allowed their best performances to emerge – in particular the comprehensive win against the Cowboys last weekend in which they played outstanding football.
"Some still have doubts about Cronulla as a title contender, but if you look closely at their roster and their desire to aim up for their mates this team is going to be a genuine threat come the semis."
The Round 23 issue of Big League is on sale now at newsagents and at the ground. Digital version also available at Zinio.