The struggle was real last year, as the impact of no Sam Burgess made an impact at the South Sydney Rabbitohs. Lacking true penetration and vigour down the middle of the field, his return ahead of the 2016 season will galvanise the Souths pack. But is the return of one man enough to catapult them towards potential success again? Or will other forwards have to step up and support him? Are they able to do so? With many question marks over the future of the current Souths halves, with both being linked to a move away from Redfern, how will they cope with the speculation and can they gel well together and perform? Or will it get the better of them, allowing Cody Walker to make one of the positions his own for the long-term?
Whilst not as technically strong as many other sides this year, Souths have some steely resolve at their disposal and a committed, tough coach, who can get the best out of his players. Michael Maguire, like several other coaches in the NRL, is regarded as a hard taskmaster and one of the best emerging coaches in the league. He places high expectation on his team and on individual players, and expects results to come from that as a result of his team’s performances. But with fewer genuine superstars than some other sides, will that expectation to be too much for the support players? Are they the sort of players who can surprise a few and make an impact or will the reliance on their own star players become the norm throughout the year.
The return of Sam Burgess to the Souths side is a tremendous boost for not only the club, but for the players themselves. Clearly not the team they were in 2014 when they won the premiership, Souths will again be looking to the Englishman to guide their team moving forward and be a leader of the forwards both on and off the field. But can he do it all on his own? Are the efforts of one man enough to propel Souths forwards and back towards some form of glory? Around him, many would regard the other forwards as role-players and not so much stars, but they all have a job to play. For Souths efforts to run smoothly and efficiently, they will need production from all their players, to assist the stars they do have in Burgess, Greg Inglis and Adam Reynolds. Likely to have some players in their side with something to prove to the coach, the fans and themselves, as well as young, emerging players that have not been exposed to the rigours of first-grade, the challenge for coach Michael Maguire will be to get the best out of all of them for the season ahead.
For quite some time now, there has been much speculation about the Souths halves duo and the exact make-up of it for some time. Constant talk about leaving the club, joining another club and just general chatter about their respective futures. Both Adam Reynolds and Luke Keary have been subject to this, and whilst at this stage, they would appear to be the front-runners for the halves duo come the start of the season, there is one player who has a chance to say something about that. Cody Walker, who has enjoyed a solid pre-season and thus impressing many, has a chance to cement a spot with a good Rd 1 showing. He is expected to start in Rd 1 with Luke Keary suspended and he will have no better chance to prove his worth and show what he can do, with a solid performance.
All the speculation regarding their futures could be a distraction but if Walker does perform well and one of Souths other halves were to leave, it would soften the blow somewhat for the fans, knowing that their halves stocks are in good hands.
A lot of conjecture also arises over the make-up of the Souths back-line come Rd 1. With Kirisome Auva’a back in the frame after missing time due to his domestic violence charges, he is the front-runner to return to the centres and become the go-to man in light of Dylan Walker’s departure to Manly. But there is a belief out there that he should not simply walk about into the side without earning it. With the emergence of Hymel Hunt from the Melbourne Storm and his recent performances in trials, his name is also in the ring to play Rd 1. The uncertainty for those spots can create healthy competition but perhaps unhealthy relationships, depending on how the players themselves deal with such challenges. Regardless of the direction Souths go in, they will need all their players selected to perform well and do the job required. Also in the mix is returning veteran Dane Nielsen, a signing that has some Souths fans divided. Is there a spot for both he and Auva’a or is it just one or the other?
Ultimately, Souths do still have top quality players, even if it is not as many as before or as other teams. Whilst other teams have recruited strongly across the board, Souths have only brought in a few new players and the challenge for them is to galvanise their playing roster to perform strongly against the teams regarded as better teams than their own. On that note, they will have to be consistent with their form and have a good run of wins if they are to maintain their spot in the top eight, or other teams that have become stronger and better may overtake them.
Best buy: As previously stated, Souths were not as active in recruitment as other sides and whilst the obvious choice would be Sam Burgess for this section, his efforts will be consistent and similar to before he left. For this section, our best buy for Souths is Damien Cook. Formerly from the Canterbury Bulldogs, Cook left a lasting impression on Dogs fans and NRL fans with his finish to the season when named at hooker for the Bulldogs after Michael Lichaa’s injury. Souths, needing a hooker after the departure of Issac Luke pounced, leaving their fans pleased. A crafty, zippy player, his quick turn of pace and surprising speed has been on show throughout the pre-season in both the Auckland Nines and trial games, further exciting the Souths fans. A talented player, he will offer spark and impact regardless of whether he plays or starts, and is a player that can bring some dynamism to the Souths pack and get them on the right track in terms of go-forward.
Our predicted line-up:
1. Greg Inglis (C)
2. Alex Johnston
3. Kirisome Auva’a
4. Dane Nielsen
5. Bryson Goodwin
6. Luke Keary (Cody Walker for Rd 1)
7. Adam Reynolds
8. George Burgess
9. Damien Cook
10. David Tyrrell
11. Kyle Turner
12. John Sutton
13. Sam Burgess
14. Thomas Burgess
15. Chris Grevsmuhl
16. Jason Clark
17. Cameron McInnes
2016 Gains: Sam Burgess (2018), Damien Cook (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, 2017), Hymel Hunt (Melbourne Storm, 2016), Dane Nielsen (St George Illawarra Dragons, 2017), Michael Oldfield (Catalan Dragons, 2016)