Pre-season. Footy is just about here, and after the Nines last week, tomorrow we get our first taste of the 80-minute variety as the Indigenous All-Stars take on the Maori All-Stars.
If Sam Burgess didn’t drop the ball four times against Melbourne Storm in that ball-tearer of a final at AAMI Park last Friday night, then South Sydney would’ve won.
You don’t give those Storm people cheap ball, they’ll make you eat it. And it tastes as bad as cold Steeden would. Souths should’ve won.
They’ve been winning all year. And so much is down to their born-again back-rower, John Sutton.
How good’s he been? Answer: very good. He’s playing his best ever footy. Better than when he was fringe Origin in ‘08. Better than when he captained the club to the premiership in ‘14.
He’s running hard, tight angles. He’s carrying the ball in two hands, off-loading little passes. He’s simplified his game and is playing to his strengths, running at holes as he always has.
He’s demonstrably fitter than he’s ever been. He’s broken records in the gym. At the ripe age of 33, John Sutton is in his prime.
Did a story on him last month and just watched him the entire game. It’s instructive doing that. Pick a guy and just watch him the whole game.
And there he was on the left edge: hands of a five-eighth, step of a centre, the brute nark and rat-cunning of a gnarly second-row, ripping off the lost art of hole-running.
Beaver Menzies used to do it: hit holes off Cliffy. Sutton’s always done it. It looks a hard, tight, aggressive line. But he’s running at space, at ‘soft’ shoulders, looking to split ‘em at the advantage line.
Twice he freed an arm to set a team-mate free. Bunnies left wing Robert Jennings nailed a hat-trick. It’s no coincidence Jennings led the Bunnies try-scoring list with 18.
Happy wingers equal hot footy side. Souths’ left edge has been humming. Cody Walker’s killing ‘em. Sutton can claim credit there too.
He made 20 passes, behind only hooker and halves. He made 25 tackles. He played 80 minutes. He barked at the ball-players and pigs. He didn’t have the ‘C’ next to his name but he was clearly a Rabbitoh-in-chief.
League nerds watch Sutton play. Because he is a player. A league player. Something’s going to happen. There’s players that’ll make yards, hit the line, go to ground, play the ball, repeat. War-horses and battering rams. And there’s a place for those people. But you pay money to see the players.
In Sutton’s first season Bryan Fletcher was Souths captain, and the young bloke would tell the old bloke when he’d be running into a hole. Sutton would envision plays a couple ahead, and predict where holes would open up.
Sutton plays with No.12 on his back (the position called ‘second-row’ when it was the job description) but he’s a ‘left edge’ man. A hole-runner. A danger man. Smart. Quick enough. Tough. Left foot step. Little pass. Good little kicking game.
Play long enough you get intricate understanding of space and time. You become a player.
Sutton is a voice on the field and around training. A leader. With Greg Inglis and Sam Burgess, they set expectations at Souths. Anthony Siebold is big on empowering leaders. Those four have breakfast once a week, talk shop.
I had a coffee with him down Maroubra. Nice fellah. Bit shy. Well, not shy. But he’s not comfortable with a tape on. Having a yarn with you, no worries. Tape recorder could be a tarantula.
But as a leader it’s part of his gig.
“I had to grow up in that respect,” he said. “I didn’t see myself like that. I was one of the lads, kickin’ around. But it grew on me, leadership. And I’m a leader still today.
“I’m the oldest. And I do like the young kids looking up to me. And I do like setting the right examples.”
Sutton is happy to play his role without the ‘C’ next to his name. He’s playing footy a week at a time. He’ll go around again next year, if they’ll have him, and they surely will.
He won’t rule out England but says if he can play in the NRL he’ll play in the NRL. He sees himself retiring here.
After footy he’d like to coach. Not head coach. Not for a while, anyway. But he’s got knowledge.
“I think I could offer the footy club something,” he offered in a rare moment pumping his own tyres. Then he smiled: “Plus I don’t really know much else!”
And so I got to the end of my questions and tried to think of some other stuff. Our chat had seemed a little thin. Surely there was more to the bloke, the first ever to play 300 games for a club that’s been around since 1908 that they named after rabbit-slaughtering meat salesmen.
And so, running out of ideas, I asked him: Why do you like footy?
And he flashed a self-effacing grin, and his eyes twinkled, and he laughed: “Mate – I dunno!”
And then he said: “I guess I love being around the boys. You’re hanging out with your best mates every day, playing the game you’ve always loved for a team you grew up supporting.
“Another premiership is always back of the mind, the buzz of that. Waited a long time, 10, 11 years to get there. I don’t have 10 years left. And I want to do that again.
“But mate there’s not much more to me. I just like playin’.”