The NRL grand final on Sunday is set to mark the end of the 2021 season, and for South Sydney coach Wayne Bennett, history beckons.
The super coach is poised to become the only coach in rugby league history to coach premiership victories at three different clubs.
But for fans of St George Illawarra, where Bennett enjoyed his most recent success in 2010 after delivering the club its first premiership in 31 years, the end of the 2021 season cannot come quickly enough.
In what was supposed to be a year of celebration, in which the mighty Red V would celebrate its centenary (having entered the competition in 1921), the 2021 season has been a year of failure and disappointment. Perhaps even embarrassment.
Though, to be fair, things have been dire around Kogarah way for a while now, not coincidentally since Bennett left at the end of the 2011 season.
During his three-year tenure between 2009 and 2011, the team won 65 per cent of their matches including finals, while contributing up to eight players to each State of Origin effort. They also won the minor premiership twice.
The super coach’s tenure also featured an extraordinary run of 17 wins from 20 starts (85 per cent) between Round 19 in 2010 (at the end of the State of Origin series) and Round 9 in 2011 (at the beginning of the State of Origin series) – including two finals wins, a grand final victory over the Roosters and a World Club Challenge victory over Wigan, during which the team did not concede a single second-half point in any of those four matches.
Yet things have changed utterly since Bennett’s departure.
A raft of baffling roster moves over recent years, including the loss of Joel Thompson at the end of the 2017 season, the signing of Corey Norman for the 2019 season and beyond, and the inability to retain Tyson Frizell and Jason Saab at the end of last season – the latter of whom scored 23 tries in 24 games for Manly this year – have left many fans of the great club truly baffled.
Add to that the widely documented BBQ at former prop Paul Vaughan’s house in July this year (which was attended by several high-profile team members and ultimately resulted in the termination of Vaughan’s contract) and the highly publicised fallout with star fullback Matt Dufty – who has signed with the Bulldogs – the extent of the club’s underperformance since Bennett’s departure is perhaps not altogether surprising.
Indeed, after winning the Charity Shield in 2012 (literally months after Bennett left Kogarah), the club has lost the previous nine contests – the longest losing streak since the concept first began in 1982.
The club has only made the finals twice in the last ten seasons between 2012 and 2021 (finishing eighth in 2015 and seventh in 2018) and the overall winning percentage sits at around 40 per cent.
During the same period, a positive for-and-against has only been achieved on three occasions (in 2015, 2017 and 2018) and their average end-of-season ladder position is 12 (or fourth last).
But the 2021 season has undoubtedly been one of the worst for the club.
The losing streak of eight matches – which began immediately after the infamous BBQ – equalled the club’s all-time longest losing streak set way back during the 1926 season, and the 616 total points conceded throughout 2021 is the most in club history.
The glory days of the 11-straight premierships in the 1950s and 1960s are long gone, and the intergenerational loyalty that endured through the relatively lean years of the early 1970s, and the late 1980s, and which was firmly on display when the threat of a merger with Eastern Suburbs loomed in the mid-90s and fans turned out in droves to chant “Red, white – no blue”, is now surely being tested.
Something needs to change, quickly.
Just last week, the club announced that former international prop and club captain Craig Young would assume the role of chairman from November – a move which may well be the first step towards positive change.
And the recent signings of key player personnel for next season – including Jaydn Su’A and George Burgess from Souths and Moses Mbye from the Wests Tigers – are seemingly a step in the right direction.
But whether these changes will be enough to reverse or even halt the club’s recent unravelling is difficult to say. Perhaps only time will tell.
Certainly new coach Anthony Griffin, who presided over the disastrous 2021 season (in his first season at the club no less) and is currently signed only until the end of next season, would hope so.
And for the fans of the most famous rugby league club in the world, a repeat of the 2021 season – in which the famous Red V was unquestionably diminished – would be entirely unacceptable.