Sutton's front row seats to Rabbitohs' incredible evolution
If all players were measured by how they left their clubs compared to how they found it, then South Sydney's first 300-gamer John Sutton belongs in the very top bracket.
The humble 33-year-old made his debut for the proud foundation club at a difficult time.
Still only recently readmitted to the NRL after two years in the wilderness, the 2004 Bunnies were at that stage something of a transit lounge for players who would not get a start at most other clubs, faded stars on a final deal and local kids like Sutton.
When Sutton emerged from Kensington in Bunnies heartland to make his debut in 2004, he was a 19-year-old centre or five-eighth and a bit of a ratbag who few would have guessed would become one of the club's most important players this century.
Sutton got his first taste of NRL in round 17 as a centre before finishing that year with three starts at five-eighth and a wooden spoon.
Ten years later he held the Telstra Premiership trophy aloft as Rabbitohs captain; four years after that (with a couple of quiet years in between) his team sits on top of the ladder as he readies himself to become the first man in history to play 300 games in cardinal and myrtle and targets yet another contract extension.
Sitting down in NRL.com's Eveleigh studios while his daughter Pippi flits in and out like a free woodland spirit, Sutton expresses his gratitude at having been along for the ride through South Sydney's incredible transformation over the past two decades but refuses to take an iota of credit. However it remains obvious he deserves plenty.
"I don't think I've had much to do with any of it but I have seen the change in the club. Where it is now, it is great to see," Sutton says.
"I didn't think I'd ever play 300 games and at one club for Souths, it's been a dream run. Very happy to be able to play football as a living and to do it at Souths where I grew up, I love the club so much. It's been great."
The early days
Souths won two wooden spoons in Sutton's first three years and finished 13th of 15 teams in the other.
"I didn't really know much else because I came through the South Sydney system, came into first grade through Souths and I was probably just happy to be in first grade when I was 18, 19, 20 years old," Sutton says.
"I probably didn't worry as much about winning or losing when I first came into grade because I was just happy to be in the side. That all changes when you start winning some games, you want to win more."
Things started to turn in 2007, Sutton's fourth year at the club. By this time he was a back-rower and the squad boasted genuine strike in the backs in the likes of Nigel Vagana and Nathan Merritt while new prop Roy Asotasi bucked the trend of late-career signings, joining Redfern at the peak of his powers to bolster an improving pack.
"That was a big year," Sutton recalls.
"Russell [Crowe] took over the club, we got some experienced older players in like Nigel Vagana came, we signed Roy, he was playing some of the best footy of his career when he first came over.
"We had a good balanced team and I probably learned a lot off those older fellas about preparing to win.
"It was a bit of an up and down year for me, I started off in the team, got dropped to the bench, did my shoulder [in round eight, unsuccessfully attempting to score what would have been a match-winning try against Brisbane], missed eight or nine weeks but came back and played the rest of the season and was lucky enough to get a semi-final berth.
"It was just a great year for the club, making the finals, and it probably helped me a lot. But 2008 didn't start off the best, we lost the first [seven] games, we got a bit ahead of ourselves. NRL's tough like that, you have to be up every single week."
Building towards something special
While 2007 may have been a bit of a false dawn in terms of finals – the club didn't play finals footy again until 2012 – their days as perennial strugglers were over. They finished barely a win outside the top eight in three straight seasons from 2009-2011.
Crowe lured highly rated Englishman Sam Burgess to Redfern in 2010 and just-as-highly-rated Wigan coach Michael Maguire in 2012.
Sutton made his captaincy debut in 2011 and was formally installed as one of five co-captains in 2012.
"In 2010 and 2011 we had really good squads, we just missed the semis both years – I think we finished ninth or 10th. We had the team but just didn't play consistent enough footy throughout the year to make the finals.
"Madge came along in 2012 and was really good for us, we worked really hard and built a lot of belief. That's what he instilled in us and we had a really good year that year."
History shows the Rabbitohs broke a 43-year premiership drought in 2014 with Sutton leading a star-studded squad to glory on the back of a power-packed (and Burgess-packed) forward game and a brilliant spine of Greg Inglis, Adam Reynolds, Issac Luke (who missed the grand final through suspension) and Luke Keary.
Sutton etched his name alongside club legends like John Sattler and Jack Rayner in captaining the club to a premiership win.
"You couldn't get anyone to come when we first got back in the comp but now players want to come play for South Sydney," he says.
"You can see stars like Sam [Burgess] and Greg [Inglis], we got Dane [Gagai] this year and we've had some good juniors some through as well, Adam Reynolds and Clarkey (Jason Clark). It's exciting times at the club now."
After three below-par years the Bunnies are a force again, leading the ladder through 18 rounds with Sutton just one of a host of players in something close to career-best form.
"I had a really good pre-season and I've got a good combination with Cody [Walker] on that left side," Sutton says.
"I've been playing with Cody for a couple of years now, he moved around a little but last year and I did as well. He trained at five-eighth all pre-season, I trained in the back row so we just built a really good combination through the pre-season. It's helped my game a lot.
"In the pre-season we did a lot more on the football side of things, getting fit, conditioning stuff, played a lot of games, had a lot of scenarios, just the style we've been wanting to play in front of the ball, getting it out to Greg and Dane on the edges and letting them use their gifts.
"The big boys, George and Tom are ripping through the middle. When they're playing the ball quick you've got Cooky [Damien Cook] jumping out of dummy-half. We're just playing to our strengths at the moment and it's been working.
"I don't know how long I've got left so I'm making the most of every opportunity."
Sutton says he hasn't yet got anything locked in next year but is hoping to get something over the line at Souths.
"I could go at least another year," he says.
"I just try and play it week by week but my body feels pretty good, I haven't missed a game all this year or last year so I've played every game and just enjoying it."
Sutton says he hasn't even considered going to another club in the NRL or overseas.
"I'd love to get another year at Souths but with the salary cap and all that stuff the club's got to deal with, I understand that and you've got to look after the younger players coming through as well," he says.
"They're the future of the club, they've got to come first. I'll just bide my time and see what happens."
A missed chance to play rep footy
This Saturday, Sutton hits a unique milestone as the first player to play 300 games for one club without ever getting a start in Origin or for Australia.
He's been close with NSW and Fiji a few times but injury and circumstance have conspired against him. Sutton blames no one but himself for never quite making it.
"In 2009 I think I was half a chance [for Origin] but broke my hand in the City-Country game. That got rid of any hope I had. 2013 I was playing pretty good football too but it wasn't to be [missing out on the Blues utility role to Josh Reynolds].
"A couple of times I've been injured [when Fiji teams have been selected]. I wanted to play [the World Cup] last year but I had contract issues, I didn't have a contract yet at Souths so it was hard for me to try and go into a World Cup, I had to get my priorities sorted there first.
"I'm probably a bit disappointed in myself I haven't got to have those chances but it's no one else's fault except for mine. Maybe I should have played better or something!"
The big 300
Sutton seems almost sheepish that of all the huge names to have pulled on the cardinal and myrtle since 1908, he will be the first to 300.
It's perhaps less surprising when you consider everyone in the 300 club made their debut in 1974 or later, and most since 1990, a period which includes South Sydney's temporary stint in the wilderness and some very lean years.
"It's a proud club and to think no one's done it at Souths, Bobby McCarthy was 211 games then I went past him," Sutton says.
"He was an all-time great, no-one's come close to 300 which is a bit weird given the club's been around for so long but it will be a massive achievement for myself."