South Sydney officials point to Wayne Bennett’s description of Jason Demetriou as his “co-coach” at Sunday night’s grand final press conference as confirmation that the Rabbitohs are in good hands next season and beyond.
Contrary to the widespread belief that Demetriou joined Souths from Brisbane in 2019 as part of a package deal with Bennett, he was identified independently by the Rabbitohs as the best assistant coach available at the time.
In fact, Demetriou had been on the radar at Redfern since 2016 when he was discussed internally for a role on Michael Maguire’s coaching staff the following season.
However, Bennett lured him to the Broncos, and Souths hired Anthony Seibold and David Furner to work with Maguire.
After a five-year apprenticeship under Bennett, Demetriou will officially take charge on November 1, with his biggest challenge set to be how the Rabbitohs overcome the loss of halfback and captain Adam Reynolds.
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Yet the impact that suspended superstar Latrell Mitchell may have had on the grand final result has been understated, while Jai Arrow – the forward expected to pressure Nathan Cleary when he kicked – played just 17 minutes after an early head knock.
Besides the departures of Reynolds, Dane Gagai and Jaydn Su’a, Demetriou will have a largely unchanged squad of players he is familiar with and anyone who has watched the team train would not be surprised by Bennett’s comments about his successor.
"He's been a wonderful servant to the game and to me personally he's been a wonderful co-coach,” Bennett told the press conference after Sunday's 14-12 grand final loss to Penrith at Suncorp Stadium.
“Ben Hornby's staying with him, and Jason's an extremely competent coach, so I don't think there will be too many ripples at all."
Bennett is considering remaining involved with Souths in a consultancy role but his preference is a coaching job with the second Brisbane team expected to join the NRL in 2023.
However, Rabbitohs COO Brock Schaefer believes the seven-times premiership mentor is likely to provide a sounding board for Demetriou regardless of what he does next year.
“They have a really close personal relationship and no matter what happens next year Wayne and JD will be speaking every week, whether it is in a professional sense or as friends,” he said.
Schaefer was the Northern Pride CEO when Demetriou coached the Cairns-based Queensland Cup club in 2013 and 2014 – winning back-to-back minor premierships and the grand final in his second season.
The Easts Tigers team beaten 36-4 by Demetriou's Pride outfit included the likes of Cameron Munster, Cody Walker, Felise Kaufusi, Kenny Bromwich and Hymel Hunt.
Demetriou was an assistant to Paul Green in North Queensland’s 2015 premiership triumph over Bennett’s Broncos and took the Illawarra Cutters to victory in the NSW Cup grand final the following season.
“I think a common denominator with most successful head coaches is that they have had experience coaching their own open-aged men’s teams," Schaefer said.
"JD has been a head coach of men successfully, frequently, and I think when he coached the Pride the Queensland Cup was never at a higher standard.
"He did an incredibly good job in that comp and then went on to do it in the NSW Cup. They were things that the club evaluated when they made the decision to bring Jason here."
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JD had the best CV
Bennett phoned Demetriou, who played 12 seasons in England and began his coaching career with Keighley, to offer him an assistant's role at Brisbane in 2017, while preparing the 45-year-old to become an NRL head coach.
The supercoach has long advocated the type of co-coaching role he shared with Don Furner at the Raiders in 1987, with Bennett able to transition from coaching in the Brisbane competition while Furner dealt with the media and other commitments.
Brisbane sacked Bennett at the end of the 2018 season after luring Seibold from Souths and he approached the Rabbitohs about their coaching vacancy. Demetriou was appointed soon after.
“It was not sign Wayne and Jason comes too," Schaefer said. "We got Wayne and then we went and looked independently at who the best assistant coaches in the game were.
“JD had the best CV and the best reputation in the game so that is why we signed him, with the very clear succession plan that he would step up to become the NRL head coach when Wayne finished.
“That was something that was spoken of from the board down, in that after signing Wayne we needed a succession plan."
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The Rabbitohs have followed the succession strategy of the Sydney Swans who announced at the end of the 2009 season that John Longmire would replace Paul Roos as head coach in 2011.
The Swans also appointed GM of football Andrew Ireland to take over from CEO Myles Baron-Hay and Souths have a succession plan for all aspects of the business.
The strategy was driven by co-owner Russell Crowe, chairman Nick Pappas and former GM of football Shane Richardson after the slump that followed the club’s 2014 premiership triumph.
With Richardson, who was CEO in 2014, CFO Joe Kelly and chief commercial officer John Richardson all departing after the grand final, Souths suffered a loss of corporate knowledge.
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On the field, the Rabbitohs also lost Sam Burgess, Ben Te’o, Api Koroisau and Lote Tuqiri from the premiership winning team.
“After 2014 one of the things the club was keen to ensure was that there wasn’t a key person dependency,” Rabbitohs CEO Blake Solly said.
“If a CEO or a head coach or a GM of football went we wanted there to be a really, really strong internal replacement available who knew the culture of the club and what needed to be done to ensure South Sydney were successful.
“We wanted that internal succession plan across the business, so the head coach was just as important as the CEO or GM of football.”
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Taaffe ready to step up
While Souths did not want to lose Reynolds to Brisbane, succession planning is also applied to the club's roster and Blake Taaffe, who has deputised at fullback for the suspended Mitchell, is expected to get first shot at the No.7 jersey under Demetriou.
Taaffe was the NSW under 20s halfback in 2019, while fellow rookie playmaker Lachlan Ilias is also highly regarded at Souths.
The 22-year-old was targeted by the Panthers in the grand final, with Nathan Cleary kicking repeatedly to him and his chasing forwards picking up the 85kg Taaffe and carrying him backwards after he caught the ball.
If Mitchell had played it is unlikely Penrith would have had the same success with that tactic, while Arrow may have applied more pressure to Cleary when he kicked.
Gagai (Newcastle), Su'a (St George Illawarra) and possibly veteran playmaker Benji Marshall will also be leaving but the Rabbitohs ensured that contract decisions did not derail their premiership tilt.
"What made our transition so effective was the level of trust between Wayne and JD fundamentally, and then the trust between Wayne and the board and staff here," Schaefer said.
"Wayne knew that every single effort was being placed on winning a competition with him as a head coach.
"There was never a decision made that would impact on him in that regard but similarly Wayne always supported Jason where Jason wanted something to happen in the future."
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARL Commission, NRL clubs or state associations.