It was hard to predict how 2016 would pan out for the Rabbitohs. The inclusion of Sam Burgess following a season away was certainly a massive coup, with the loss of Issac Luke, Dylan Walker, Chris McQueen, and Glenn Stewart somewhat offset by the return of the 2014 Clive Churchill Medalist and some astute signings in Damien Cook and Hymel Hunt.
There was certainly cause for optimism early following big victories in the opening two rounds, but Michael Maguire's men were unable to maintain their start as an unsettled line-up led to inconsistent efforts and their first season without finals football since Maguire joined the club in 2012. All is not lost though, with four consecutive wins to round out the year suggesting there are better days ahead in 2017.
Where they excelled: Despite a below-par year, there were still some areas this new-look side performed well. Forced into plenty of defence, the Rabbitohs made a competition-high 8,442 tackles, missing 625, the fifth-best across the NRL for this statistic. Souths finished with the fifth fewest total errors, making just 20 more than the Storm, the competition's best in this area.
Sam Burgess was also consistently the best for his side in his first season back in the game, constantly searching for the ball with his 399 runs the third highest in NRL behind Andrew Fifita and James Graham.
Where they struggled: Missing the go-forward that served them so well in recent seasons, Souths' power game was lacking at times, reflected in the all run metres stat. They finished with 35,171 metres, third lowest with only Wests Tigers and the 16th-placed Knights behind them. Discipline was also of concern, with 176 penalties conceded (fifth most NRL-wide) giving their opponents a real leg-up.
Missing in action: Injuries undoubtedly played their part in the Rabbitohs' underwhelming season, with key personnel missing for extended periods. Luke Keary's final campaign in cardinal and myrtle ended prematurely with a hamstring complaint, while halves partner Adam Reynolds broke his jaw in Round 1 and made just 16 appearances as he juggled the added workload of State of Origin for the first time. Thomas and George Burgess managed 19 and 17 games respectively, John Sutton (pec) was sidelined for over three months, while outside backs Hymel Hunt (pec) and Bryson Goodwin (arm) played 13 games apiece in what was a busy year in the Redfern treatment room.
Turning point: On the back of a 42-10 demolition of bitter rivals the Roosters and a big 48-6 victory over the Knights, many expected Souths to win well against a Dragons side that tasted defeat in the opening two rounds at the hands of the Storm and Sharks. That wasn't to be, with torrential rain at the SCG changing the shape of the contest. In a frightening moment, lock Sam Burgess was taken from the field to hospital with a neck injury. While cleared of any serious issue and able to return in Round 5, the injury seemed to halt the momentum of both Burgess and the side in general, as they went on to lose in five of their next six starts. The Round 3 contest also featured a bizarre field goal attempt from Greg Inglis with his side down by two in the dying stages of the game in what was an afternoon to forget for South Sydney.
Hold your head high: Cody Walker. Biding his time in reserve grade, Walker finally made his NRL debut in Round 1 aged 26, and in a true showing of perseverance, went on to play 20 games and was one his side's best. Starting the season in the halves before switching to fullback and finally returning to the No.6 jersey, Walker scored eight tries, provided 12 try assists, and made 15 line breaks, 80 tackle breaks, 2,022 run metres and 1,635 kick metres. Also finished third in the NRL for one-on-one steals and was rewarded for his efforts with a new deal to remain at Souths through to the end of 2018.
2017 crystal ball: If the last month of the 2016 season was anything to go by, there are plenty of promising signs for the Rabbitohs ahead. With Keary, Joe Burgess, Paul Carter and Kirisome Auva'a off the books, Souths could look to tie up one or two deals before the pre-season begins. Robbie Farah has long been linked with a move to Redfern, and would complete a potent spine along with Inglis, Walker and Reynolds. With the Burgess brothers back fit and firing up front and the backline clicking into gear with Aaron Gray finding his home in the centres, the addition of a few fresh faces and a lucky run with injuries should see Maguire's men climb back into the top eight.
Conclusion: Instead of breaking their spirit, a heavy loss to the Raiders in Round 21 seemed to bring the Rabbitohs together and set them on their way for a big final month of the competition.
For Maguire, it could well be the making of his side in 2017.
"I think the boys over this last month have definitely shown what we're capable of. I'm really pleased with how my boys have really found their game again," the Souths mentor said following their Round 26 win over the Bulldogs.
"The comradery that I see out there – even with that last try with the fun that they're having – they've really found a way of playing football again and we want to take that forward.
"You take a lot out of what we've done tonight and the last couple of weeks. I think there's still a lot of growth in what we are as a team."
Seven players made their debut in cardinal and myrtle in 2016, with Walker, Angus Chrichton, Zane Musgrove and Jack Gosiewski sure to feature heavily in Maguire's plans moving forward.
In what was a difficult season for the club, the injection of youth has helped lay the foundations for progress and perhaps a return to the top eight in 2017.
Home Record: 3-9
Away Record: 6-6
Longest Winning Streak: 4 (Round 23-26)
Longest Losing Streak: 9 (Round 13-22)
Players Used: 31
Tries Scored: 83
Tries Conceded: 96
Game on. Data off.
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