South Sydney Rabbitohs’ momentum-halting loss to Sydney Roosters again proves their desperate need for an identity change.
The Rabbitohs aren’t playing finals football in 2017.
We’ve known this for a while, possibly since Greg Inglis went down back in Round 1, but sparse signs of life – particularly in the Round 17 dismantling of Penrith – gave glimmers of hope to an unreachable dream.
Their failed campaign isn’t without reason. For one, South Sydney have a weak roster. This was a heavily overrated team heading into the season; of teams that started the year with real finals aspirations (non-Knights/Tigers teams), they have the weakest list.
Sam Burgess is an elite forward, and is as good now as he’s ever been. Adam Reynolds is a competent half, fit with a pinpoint kicking game that rivals nearly all others in the league, a vital skill for any hopeful team. Outside of those two, it’s quite a struggle to find anyone on this roster who presents any kind of advantage.
The Burgess twins are wrecking balls on their day, but struggle to catch colds and find their entire game is paralysed when the errors creep in. Save for the emergence of exciting prospect Angus Crichton (who has flashed signs of progression that suggests his development is well ahead of schedule), the rest of their pack is mediocre at best. Their outside backs are raw — a rotating carousel of inconsistent attacking output and incompetent defence, with the possible exception of tryscoring machine Alex Johnston. Adding Dane Gagai, and a returning Inglis, will help shore up this department next year.
— Triple M NRL (@TripleM_NRL) June 10, 2017
Then, there’s the spine. Farah has been over the hill for the last two years. Sutton for at least three. Cody Walker is a one-trick pony. His ball-running is great, sure, but he offers next to nothing elsewhere. Reynolds tends to play in the pocket, preferring to co-ordinate the offence and let his boot do the most work. He rarely plays at the line and offers minimal threat running the ball. His best output will come with another hands-on ball-player who can offer something at the line (as Keary did in 2014). In that vein, Walker never made much sense. Playing outside the pair, Alex Johnston was always going to struggle without any genuine creativity coming from inside.
#NRLBroncosSouths. How long are Souths going to preserve with Adam Reynolds. Has zero attack other than a kick. Souths can’t score.
— MSL2035 (@MSL2035) June 9, 2017
To overcome a weak roster, the game-plan needs to be tailored to optimise the talent it houses and lift it well above the sum of its parts. Instead, they insist on attempting to barge through the middle, neglecting any expansive play, despite a roster, and a record, that demands a different style.
Souths’ first mid-season rejuvenation came after a change in their spine construction, moving Walker from No.6 to fullback, sliding Sutton back into the halves, and exiling Johnston to the wing. To suggest it worked would be shortsighted, but in a competition that has no reward for anything but winning, proposing a year developing with nothing to show is a hard pill to swallow, especially to such a large, and loyal fanbase.
But it underlines a fatal mistake they made once it was clear the 2017 premiership was out of reach — by bringing Sutton into the halves and pushing AJ to the wing, they mortgaged a slightly better performance in the current year in place of developing Johnston for the future.
Truth is, even with Greg Inglis in the mix, the Rabbitohs weren’t making the post-season. Once Inglis went down, their path back to contention should have been obvious — bring the young talent to the forefront, endure through the growing pains this year while it doesn’t matter and begin to shape a new identity that will once again be ready to compete for a finals spot come 2018.
Instead, they doubled down on their current identity, implemented a gameplan that has been outdated for, at least, the past two seasons (which they do not have the personnel needed to succeed) and chased the eighth seed.
No surprises: they’ve come up well short.
The league has well outgrown the Rabbits’ style. Trends in rugby league move fast, and once something starts winning, everybody attempts to emulate it. Their 2014 success came on the back of superior talent in the forwards, strike out wide, and Inglis as the unstoppable weapon tying it all together.
Those days are long gone, and opposition teams quickly figured them out; a lack of hunger after such a euphoric, drought-breaking triumph played its part, too.
Souths continue to press forward with what now looks like a prehistoric system, even though they lack the team to carry it out. They show up to the battle attempting to joust against opponents using missiles. And they’re getting blown off the park, frequently. The only time they are able to recapture the magic is against teams who come understocked up front, such as the Panthers who they whipped around for a 28-point win, but no such teams are competing for a title. It didn’t even work against an Origin-less Roosters team. It’s a long-winded way of saying they simply can’t win with their current style.
Johnston isn’t ready to play fullback full-time. He struggles, at times mightily, with the workload and positioning, and can be a train-wreck defensively. Still just 22, Johnston offers by far the most upside of anyone on the team, and his best position long-term still projects to be fullback. It also isn’t outlandish to suggest that he might grow substantially if given the reins for a full season.
This is even more relevant as you consider the future: GI will turn 31 before the start of next season and is coming off a major knee injury — his body can’t hold up under the mileage required at the back much longer. Gagai is an option at the back, but his best football so far has come at centre. Splitting Inglis and Gagai’s strike either side presents the best option from a balance standpoint, but that would either call for Sutton at five-eighth (just no), or leave them with the same Reynolds/Walker/Johnston trio that came up fruitless in the first half of ’17.
And Johnston, if anything, is just symbolic of the entire Souths setup. Their style of play continues to lag far behind the leading clubs, and they’ll remain on the outside of the conversation until they are willing to do away with old, comfortable habits.
Either way, Friday’s loss to an understrength Roosters team is the final straw in proof that South Sydney need a revamped identity if they hope to reverse their fortunes next season. It was also the final chapter proving they completely wasted a season that could have been spent getting a head-start on the competition next year. Now they are destined to start from behind, again.