South Sydney Rabbitohs season preview
After their premiership defence ended with barely a whimper in 2015, the loss of key personnel has allowed Michael Maguire to make several tweaks to his squad, which should change the dynamic of the side in 2016 and have the Rabbitohs pumped up for the season. Oh and you might've heard: a certain Clive Churchill Medallist is back in town too.
Gains and losses
Gains: Michael Oldfield (Catalans Dragons), Damien Cook (Canterbury Bulldogs), Sam Burgess (English rugby union), Hymel Hunt (Melbourne Storm).
Losses: Issac Luke (New Zealand Warriors), Ben Lowe (retirement), Glenn Stewart (Catalans Dragons), Chris McQueen (Gold Coast Titans), Dylan Walker (Manly Sea Eagles).
Sam Burgess returns after a stint in rugby union, much to the delight of Rabbitohs members and supporters everywhere. Kiwi international Issac Luke left the club to join the Warriors, while Dylan Walker moved across town to the Sea Eagles and cult favourite Chris McQueen headed north to the Titans. Fleet-footed dummy-half Damien Cook looks to be an astute purchase after a strong finish to 2015 with the Bulldogs, while Michael Oldfield and Hymel Hunt will fight for places in a crowded backline.
What we know
In captain Greg Inglis, Souths possess one of the genuine superstars of the game. Throw in premiership-winning halves Adam Reynolds and Luke Keary, international props George and Thomas Burgess, and you get a sense that this is still a side that can challenge for the 2016 premiership. Add Sam Burgess to the equation, and on paper this is still a Rabbitohs side that should be able to match it with the best the NRL has to offer.
There are however a number of questions that need answering. When Burgess left the game following the 2014 grand final triumph, he did so at the peak of his powers. While it's not as if he will have lost any ability after a season away from rugby league, the dual international could experience a slight period of readjustment. Regardless of what happens, it appears we'll all be kept well-informed of his progress given the intense media interest in his return. One man can't change the fortunes of an entire team, but having Burgess back in the fold certainly helps Souths' chances.
Also of interest will be the roles of Cameron McInnes and Damien Cook. With Luke having been a fixture of the side since 2007, the McInnes-Cook double team should provide the Rabbitohs with a different dynamic out of dummy-half. It remains to be seen if Maguire will name both in his game day 17, but if he does, McInnes is the likely candidate to start and 'manage' the opening passage of a game, with Cook injected mid-way through the contest to cause plenty of headaches with his explosive pace. It will be intriguing to see what sort of formula works in this key position.
Yet to make his NRL debut, Cody Walker is expected to start in the halves in Round 1 with Luke Keary suspended. At 26, now is Walker's time to show what he's capable of in the top grade, and a good showing against the Roosters might give Maguire the same conundrum Des Hasler faced when trying to fit Trent Hodkinson, Josh Reynolds and Moses Mbye into his Bulldogs side in 2015. After playing one game last year, 2014 Australian Schoolboys rep John Olive is very much in contention for a spot on the wing, while young prop Zane Musgrove is one to keep an eye on after solid trial form.
There's plenty of competition of places in the outside backs, with Alex Johnston, Kirisome Auva'a, Aaron Gray, Bryson Goodwin, Hymel Hunt, Michael Oldfield and Dane Nielsen all jostling for positions. Walker and John Sutton provide coverage in the halves and while some depth has been lost up front, Paul Carter and Nathan Brown will be challenging for first grade spots throughout the year.
Workhorse Sam Burgess ($492,000) is the Rabbitohs' most expensive player in NRL Fantasy, and after receiving a discount for a year out of the game, looks like a quality option particularly with increased appeal as a dual FRF/2RF. Adam Reynolds ($447,000) scores well on a regular basis in the halves, and while Greg Inglis's ($401,000) Fantasy scores are less predictable, he is still one of the better performers at WFB.
Given the success he has brought to the club, you wouldn't imagine coach Michael Maguire's position is under any serious threat as he oversees perhaps the most significant squad remould since he arrived at Redfern in 2012. However anything less than a top eight finish would be well below the standard Maguire and the 30,000 or so South Sydney members demand of their side.
It's tough to get a gauge on this Rabbitohs squad. They certainly possess the talent required for any top eight side, but there are several significant unknowns that need answering before claiming they are again title contenders. The loss of Luke isn't to be underestimated, but Burgess's return should provide the side with the punch through the middle they were at times missing in 2015. We think the Rabbitohs still have enough quality at their disposal to finish in the bottom half of the top eight at the very least, with anything possible in finals football from there.