Adam Reynolds has revealed he would consider leaving Souths unless he secures a long-term deal but if the captain does depart at season's end, he believes he can do so with a premiership ring.
After re-signing Latrell Mitchell until the end of the 2023 season, Souths may not be able to accommodate all their off-contract stars – Reynolds, Dane Gagai and Jaydn Su'A – but the mood at Redfern is one of optimism over their premiership prospects.
The Rabbitohs are being touted as one of the Telstra Premiership favourites in Wayne Bennett’s last season before handing over the coaching reins to Jason Demetriou and no-one at the club’s media session on Monday was trying to dampen those expectations.
"My mindset, and what I have spoken to the club about, is that I just want to win a grand final and I believe we can do that so that is what my focus is on," Gagai said. "I think we are a lot better than we were last year."
For those who may have forgotten during the shortest off-season in NRL history, Souths finished 2020 by piling on 146 points against Sydney Roosters, Newcastle and Parramatta before bowing out with a 20-16 loss to Penrith in the grand final qualifier.
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It was the third year in succession they have finished one game short of the grand final but while some believe their premiership window may be closing, the players have drawn confidence from the fact no one expected them to get that far.
"People can say what they want, we will show them on the field," Su’A said.
Among the reasons the Rabbitohs are so bullish is they were widely written off last season following the retirement of Greg Inglis, Sam Burgess and John Sutton and departure of George Burgess to England.
Up stepped the likes of Junior Tatola, Liam Knight, Mark Nicholls and Patrick Mago, while Keaon Koloamatangi lived up to the hype before his NRL debut last June against the Storm.
With Queensland forward Jai Arrow moving from the Gold Coast to Redfern and the Rabbitohs having also signed Josh Mansour, Benji Marshall and Jacob Host, there is now greater depth in the ranks.
"We have just got to keep building and we have got Jai, but I look at guys like Keaon, he had a great season and he is just going to keep growing," England Test prop Tom Burgess said.
"We have got some good players so no-one is safe, no one is secure in their spot. You have just got to keep performing. For me, if I don’t perform on the weekend I will be playing reserves and that is the mentality we have got to have."
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It seems almost impossible to think of Adam Reynolds playing against Souths but the playmaker wants a three-year deal to finish his career in a cardinal and myrtle jersey while the club’s initial offer is for a shorter term.
Reynolds made it clear he hopes to remain a one-club player but the 30-year-old repeatedly said he and Souths officials "aren’t on the same page" in negotiations.
"I just want a longer deal," he said. "We haven’t discussed money or anything. It is just purely about the [number of] years. At my age it is good to have a bit of security, especially having four kids and a mortgage.
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"It is not ideal signing two or three more contracts. I want to sign one. I love the club and I love everything it has done for me but you have always got to keep your options open. I am not saying I am leaving but it could be a possibility."
With Gagai and Su’A also becoming free agents, it could be difficult for the Rabbitohs to fit the Maroons stars under their 2022 salary cap, as well as Reynolds, after retaining Mitchell.
Gagai and Su’A are certain to attract offers to return home if a second Brisbane team is admitted to the competition in 2023 but the pair insist they are happy at Souths and want to stay to play under Demetriou.
"I miss home but I have also made a home here at South Sydney," Su’A said. "I love it at Souths, we have got a good group and a young group. I have had JD since I debuted with Wayne at 18 years of age so I have had him my whole career basically.
"He is a bit different to Wayne. Wayne is a bit more laid back but after serving his trade under Wayne for so long he is obviously going to pick up a lot of Wayne’s habits so when you mix the two together you get a pretty incredible coach."
The Bennett factor
After winning six grand finals with the Broncos and taking St George Illawarra to premiership glory in 2010, Bennett remains on track to become the first coach in history to achieve the feat with three clubs.
However, this season could be his last chance and the Rabbitohs players are determined to farewell him with another premiership ring.
"We haven’t really talked about it but I am sure it is on a lot of the boys’ minds and if we could do that it would be amazing," Su’A said.
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"Wayne has done a lot for me and he has done a lot for the team. We want to send him out the champion he is and it is what he deserves so I guess it is driving myself to be a better player and help that become a reality."
After missing out on a place in last year’s grand final, Bennett and the squad players did some soul searching and the area they identified as a key to improvement was discipline with the ball and in defence.
"We have had a massive emphasis on ball security, because with the players in our team we have shown that scoring points isn’t really a problem. It is when we make handling errors, give away penalties and those things that can change a game," Gagai said.
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"If you give the other team six-again sets and they start generating a bit of ruck speed it is almost impossible to stop so we are trying to minimise our errors. If we can get our defence right our attack will come off the back of that."
Lock Cameron Murray said they had "tweaked a few things here and there at training that we all agreed can help us and be those one percenters that can get us to where we want to go to".
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The addition of Mansour ensures a real battle for places in the outside backs, with Gagai, last year’s Ken Irvine Medal winner Alex Johnston, Campbell Graham, Braidon Burns, Jaxson Paulo, Tautau Moga and even back-rower Jed Cartwright vying for four positions.
Marshall will keep the pressure on Reynolds and five-eighth Cody Walker to maintain form, while the Rabbitohs now have genuine forward depth, despite the forced retirement of former Maroons second-rower Ethan Lowe.
"I think we gain a lot of confidence from the last few years," Reynolds said. "We obviously cop a bit of fire too from falling short but in saying that we have a number of new faces who keep it fresh. Hopefully we can get over that hurdle and finally make the big dance."
Burgess and Gagai are also determined to avoid another frustrating end to the season.
"We have been to the preliminary final three times now and have come away without a result so for me personally it is not really successful, to be honest," Gagai said.
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"It shows that you are consistent because you are nearly there but at the end of the day we want to win a grand final."
There is a belief within the camp that they don’t need to change much.
"Something needs to lift in that respect, in those big games," Burgess said. "It is probably just keeping that focus on all the time and being proactive in games, rather than reactive.
“You have got to be confident but I don’t think we have warranted to be the favourites just yet. Melbourne are always up there, they always perform and they are consistent. There’s no reason why we can’t but we have got to keep doing what we are doing."
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