The South Sydney Rabbitohs will be an intriguing team to follow in 2019, having landed Wayne Bennett to coach one of the most talented rosters in the competition.
Rewind to 2008, and the Rabbitohs were locked in a war with the Dragons to have Bennett coach them from 2009 onwards. Bennett ended up at the Red V, and the rest, as they say, is history, as the Dragons won the competition in 2010.
After farcical scenes in the early off-season, South Sydney and Brisbane finally agreed on an immediate coach swap which saw Bennett land at Souths.
When the club is this strong though, and with a coach of Bennett’s experience, you wouldn’t expect it to bite Souths too hard.
What was most impressive about the Rabbitohs in 2018 was their ability to play an ad-lib style of footy when needed. While it didn’t work all the way to the finish line, as they bowed out in a loss to the Roosters during the third week of the finals, it was entertaining to watch.
Their left edge will again be the one to watch, with Cody Walker and Greg Inglis combining, while Sam Burgess playing an edge could be a serious danger to every other side in the competition.
All in all, this is a side who have no excuses for not having a very strong season with a top-four spot beckoning.
Colours: Cardinal and myrtle
Home grounds: ANZ Stadium, Homebush, Sunshine Coast Stadium, Central Coast Stadium
Minor premierships: 17
Best finish in last five years: 2014 – premiers
2018 finish: 4th – third week of finals
Coach: Wayne Bennett
Captain: Greg Inglis
Greg Inglis (c), Corey Allan, Tom Amone, Dean Britt, Billy Brittain, George Burgess, Sam Burgess, Thomas Burgess, Braidon Burns, Damien Cook, Cory Denniss, Kurt Dillon, Adam Doueihi, Dane Gagai, Jacob Gagan, Campbell Graham, Mawene Hiroti, Alex Johnston, Sam Johnstone, Rhys Kennedy, Liam Knight, Ethan Lowe, Matt McIlwrick, Cameron Murray, Mark Nicholls, Adam Reynolds, Bayley Sironen, John Sutton, Tevita Tatola, Connor Tracey, Kyle Turner, Cody Walker.
Ins: Cory Allan (promoted), Tom Amone (promoted), Cory Denniss (Newcastle Knights), Kurt Dillon (Cronulla Sharks), Rhys Kennedy (promoted), Liam Knight (Canberra Raiders), Ethan Lowe (North Queensland Cowboys), Matt McIlwrick (Wests Tigers), Bayley Sironen (Wests Tigers)
Outs: Jesse Arthars (Gold Coast Titans), Jason Clark (Warrington Wolves), Angus Crichton (Sydney Roosters), Tyrell Fuimaono (Penrith Panthers), Hymel Hunt (Newcastle Knights), Richie Kennar (released), Zane Musgrove (Wests Tigers)
The Rabbitohs have taken the approach of doing some promoting from within this year, and fair enough as well. Cory Allan is one of the brightest young prospects in the game, Tom Amone provides some depth in the forwards and Rhys Kennedy might get a run if things fall into place.
From outside the club they have continued to bulk up the depth of the backs, with Cory Denniss signing from Newcastle, while the recently added Ethan Lowe could add plenty off the bench if Wayne Bennett sees him fit for the 17.
Matt McIlwrick, Kurt Dillon and Bayley Sironen have also joined the club.
The biggest and most glaring out for the Rabbitohs is Angus Crichton. He has left the club for the Roosters, and again, that makes the signing of Ethan Lowe all the more important.
The 2018 season wasn’t Crichton’s best year, but he still brought plenty to the club.
Others making way include Zane Musgrove and Richie Kennar, while Hymel Hunt, Jason Clark and Tyrell Fuimaono also depart.
With the exception of Crichton and Lowe, most of these moves simply seem to be upgrading their depth, which isn’t a bad thing. Bennett knows how to get the best out of those sorts of players. Further to that, their bench management in 2018 cost them dearly at times.
Three parts of this spine could make it the best in the competition, but there are still big questions around the number one.
Alex Johnston still hasn’t been able to convince the majority he is a fullback, with his best position seemingly out wide.
Under Wayne Bennett, there is every chance Greg Inglis goes to play fullback, but without a full preseason, the extra miles in the legs would seem a risk.
The rest of the spine picks itself. Damien Cook is the New South Wales Origin hooker and was probably the best in the game last year. He was helped by the forward pack but had a wow of a year nonetheless.
The halves also bounced off each other excellently, forming a lethal combination.
Cody Walker was part of Souths dominant left-hand side, while Adam Reynolds ran the kicking game, picked the plays and was ice cool slotting field goals and doing other things you’d expect from an experienced veteran gunning to be one of the best in the game.
Adam Doueihi will also add plenty from the bench as the side’s utility.
We have already talked a little about Inglis, so let’s start there.
Inglis’s best position is in the centres. Let’s make that very clear. He has been used at the back before, and while his ball-running is lethal, his defensive positioning and reading is a little out of whack.
Add that to a lack of miles in the legs this preseason and there is no way Bennett could have faith in Inglis getting the job done at the back.
Besides, why would you mess with the best left edge in the competition? It seems like a mad plan, and that’s because it is.
Whether Campbell Graham switches to the left-hand side of the park, or Corey Allan is named there, Souths won’t lose a heap without Robert Jennings either.
Jennings was a prolific try-scorer playing outside Inglis last year, and whoever is lucky enough to line up there this year will do the same.
Both are high-quality wingers, and the size of Graham gives him a huge advantage in the air.
Dane Gagai rounds out the back line, and he needs to pick things up. His representative form has been stunning but his club form has been up and down like a yo-yo.
In terms of depth, they have plenty of that as well, led by young gun Mawene Hiroti and recruit Jacob Gagan.
Again, there is no reason to doubt that this is one of the best forward packs in the game, and with Sam Burgess to go back and play on an edge, it’s only going to get stronger.
Burgess spent most of his time in the middle third, playing at lock throughout 2018.
While the big Englishman could handle it, he will be able to terrorise on the edge, and his offloading makes him all the more threatening because, simply put, a one-on-one tackle is going to see the play continue more often than not.
His move into the second row comes with the loss of Angus Crichton, and full-scale emergence of Cameron Murray, who must start at lock this year after impressing off the bench over the last 12 months.
Murray will be joined in the middle third by another couple of Burgess brothers in the much-improved George and Tom, while John Sutton will aim to match his career-best form on that successful left edge.
The pack is strong, but the Rabbitohs must manage the bench better this year, playing more than two of them consistently. With Ethan Lowe, Kyle Turner and Tevita Tatola being challenged by Liam Knight, Tom Amone, Dean Britt and Kurt Dillon, there should be no problems in doing so.
There are a few players who are almost certain to be featuring in the Origin arena this year, with Greg Inglis and Dane Gagai likely to again don the Queensland strip, while Damien Cook is going to be the Blues hooker unless injury strikes.
Cameron Murray is the interesting one. He has fast turned into one of the best locks in the game, and while he’d probably need an injury or two from players ahead, I very much doubt his name isn’t in the conversation when the Origin chat starts to ramp up.
Likely best 17
Will the left edge stay dominant?
The Rabbitohs’ left edge was a thing of beauty throughout 2018. They scored tries, defended well and had a lot of fun in doing so.
The number of times a play would start looking like it had nothing on out of the middle third of the field before the elusive pace of Cody Walker, the sweeping play of Alex Johnston, the running of John Sutton and all-round talent of Greg Inglis would find a way through.
Robert Jennings was the beneficiary more often than not, but what made their left side so dominant was the fact they had so many plays they could go to.
On top of that, they were more than happy to go the ad-lib approach and play what was in front of them. It’s an area Cody Walker led them in, but everyone got in on the act, and with Reynolds’s kicking game also involved, they were unstoppable.
Sure, there is a change of winger this year, but the way things travelled in 2018, it wouldn’t have mattered if Fred from down the street was out there, they were still scoring plenty of points.
Can Bennett use his bench effectively?
One of Souths’ problems last year – one which exposed them in the finals – was their poor use of the bench.
Often a large chunk of the minutes would be shared around by 15 players, and while that’s all good and well, player fatigue and management is a huge issue in this competition (just ask me – I’m a Dragons fan, after all!).
When 15 players are constantly being used, it drains the big-minute players, and it showed during the finals when Souths didn’t quite look themselves.
Their depth is arguably better this year, really helped by the signing of Lowe, but they must use that bench and use it well.
It’s something Bennett should do, but it’s also crucial to Souths’ chances.
Is Damien Cook really the best in the game?
One thinks this is the year that’s going to make or break Cook, as to whether he is going to remain at the top of the game until he calls it quits.
Cook is a stunningly good hooker, and proved so throughout 2018, yet, there are still deficiencies in his game.
For one, whenever the Souths pack wasn’t rolling he looked a little lost. Most of the time that wasn’t the case, but his ability to spark something from nothing, as well as contributions to the kicking game, must be questioned.
I’d seriously question just how good he is away from one of the best packs in the game, and while that isn’t going to be an issue this year, Cook shut down when Souths were bullied in the preliminary final against Melbourne.
He can’t afford that if the Rabbitohs are to go to the next level.
|1||Fri Mar 15||7:55pm||Sydney Roosters||Sydney Cricket Ground||Nine/Fox|
|2||Thu Mar 21||7:50pm||St George Illawarra Dragons||Jubilee Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|3||Sun Mar 31||6:10pm||Gold Coast Titans||ANZ Stadium||Fox|
|4||Sat Apr 6||3pm||Manly Sea Eagles||Lottoland||Fox|
|5||Sat Apr 13||3pm||New Zealand Warriors||Sunshine Coast Stadium||Fox|
|6||Fri Apr 19||4:05pm||Canterbury Bulldogs||ANZ Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|7||Fri Apr 26||7:55pm||Penrith Panthers||Panthers Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|8||Thu May 2||7:50pm||Brisbane Broncos||ANZ Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|9||Sun May 12||4:05pm||North Queensland Cowboys||Suncorp Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|10||Sat May 18||7:35pm||Canberra Raiders||GIO Stadium||Fox|
|11||Sat May 25||7:35pm||Wests Tigers||ANZ Stadium||Fox|
|12||Fri May 31||7:55pm||Parramatta Eels||Western Sydney Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|13||Fri Jun 7||6pm||Newcastle Knights||ANZ Stadium||Fox|
|14||Sat Jun 15||5:30pm||Penrith Panthers||ANZ Stadium||Fox|
|15||Thu Jun 27||7:50pm||Wests Tigers||Western Sydney Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|17||Sat Jul 13||3pm||Manly Sea Eagles||ANZ Stadium||Fox|
|18||Sat Jul 20||7:35pm||North Queensland Cowboys||1300 Smiles Stadium||Fox|
|19||Fri Jul 26||7:55pm||St George Illawarra Dragons||ANZ Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|20||Sat Aug 3||7:35pm||Cronulla Sharks||Shark Park||Fox|
|21||Sun Aug 11||4:05pm||Melbourne Storm||Central Coast Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|22||Sat Aug 17||7:35pm||Canterbury Bulldogs||ANZ Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|23||Fri Aug 23||7:55pm||Brisbane Broncos||Suncorp Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|24||Fri Aug 30||6pm||New Zealand Warriors||MT Smart Stadium||Fox|
|25||Thu Sep 5||7:50pm||Sydney Roosters||ANZ Stadium||Nine/Fox|
The quick breakdown
Teams to play twice: Penrith Panthers, Wests Tigers, Manly Sea Eagles, North Queensland Cowboys, St George Illawarra Dragons, Canterbury Bulldogs, Brisbane Broncos, New Zealand Warriors, Sydney Roosters
Best home run: Round 11 to Round 17 (five out of seven)
Worst away run: Round 1 to Round 7 (five out of seven)
Five-day turnarounds: 1
The Bunnies start their season with a couple of blockbusters, taking on the Sydney Roosters and St George Illawarra Dragons.
With the defending premiers and team’s season they ended in the first two weeks both expected to be at the pointy end in 2019, it should give us an immediate assessment of how things have clicked under coach Bennett.
Their double-up list has some tough opposition on it – the Panthers, Cowboys, Dragons, Broncos and Roosters are all going to be tough slogs, while the Warriors and Tigers are unpredictable at best, so as you’d expect for a top-ranking team, there are going to be plenty of tough games.
Still, the Rabbitohs were good enough to beat most sides last year, and that’s going to be the key again.
Only one five-day turnaround will help the club, as will getting a lot of their away games out of the way early, with only seven of their final 17 games to be played away from home after a road start to the year.
They will want to be locked and loaded with rounds to spare as well, because the final three weeks see trips to Brisbane, Auckland and then a clash with the Roosters.
The Rabbitohs are a strong side. They have talent right across the park and the best coach who has ever set foot in a coaches box.
Even if he is past his best, this is a team who aren’t and should be well within their premiership window if they can avoid a heavy injury toll – as is the case for every team at the top end of town in this ridiculously close competition.
The Bunnies should not only be up that end of the ladder but also play a strong, aggressive style of rugby league, where points are scored pretty freely for the most part, but also back that up with a stout and solid defence, as they did for most of 2018.
Tomorrow we hit the final preview of this series.