Canterbury were huge disappointments, Parramatta and North Queensland took giant steps back after performing well in last year’s finals but South Sydney will go down as the biggest under-achievers of 2023.
For this team to miss the playoffs is almost unfathomable considering they have genuine stars in Cameron Murray, Damien Cook, Latrell Mitchell, Cody Walker on their roster, supported by Origin calibre trio Jai Arrow, Campbell Graham and Keaon Koloamatangi and the NRL’s most potent try-scorer in Alex Johnston.
They can’t point to injuries being the reason for their dramatic drop from top spot in Round 11 to finishing ninth on the back of their meek 26-12 surrender to the Roosters in the final round which allowed their bitter rivals to steal their playoff berth.
The main talking point since their early exit has been the future of Mitchell and whether he should remain fullback or switch to the centres when Jack Wighton arrives next season.
This potential move, first reported by The Sydney Morning Herald, has plenty of merit.
Mitchell is an anomaly as far as NRL fullbacks go, relying more on impact than work rate.
Penrith’s Dylan Edwards is the benchmark for non-stop No.1s in the NRL and while he averages 40 possessions, 17 runs for 174 running metres, Mitchell tallies 32 possessions and 11 runs for only 101 metres gained.
When it comes to metrics like tackle breaks, Mitchell matches Edwards with five per game and he’s also elite in creating line breaks (fifth overall at 1.2 on average) but he only broke clear three times in 16 games this year.
He’s also different when compared to the rest of the fullbacks in the league when it comes to size. Mitchell’s bulk is more in line with the modern-day centre who relies on anaerobic bursts when attacking raids are on and can stand up in defence to back-rowers running wide.
Wighton has not played fullback regularly for the Raiders since 2019 and it’s clear that five-eighth is his better position considering he was instrumental in kick-starting the Green Machine’s run to the Grand Final that year and collected the Dally M Medal the following season in the pivotal role.
Jason Demetriou could look to switch Cody Walker to fullback, who has always excelled there when he’s filled in for Souths on 20 occasions since his debut season of 2016.
With pressure growing on Lachlan Ilias at halfback, with the young playmaker suffering from the ongoing but inevitable comparisons to Adam Reynolds, perhaps Demetriou could look at using Mitchell in the halves with Wighton or Walker and rotate the three players in game to keep opposing defensive lines guessing.
That’s highly unlikely but all options should be on the table for Souths after they plummeted from top spot mid-season to miss the playoffs on the back of five straight trips to at least the prelim final stage.
The Bunnies have barely been able to sign any established first-graders over the past few years due to their heavy investment in their marquee stars but have been able to lure Wighton to the big smoke for less than he could have received from the Raiders or Dolphins due to his friendship with Mitchell and Walker.
They’ll again be losing some depth players this off-season with utility back Blake Taaffe switching to Canterbury, second-rower Jed Cartwright heading to Newcastle and Hame Sele returning to St George Illawarra.
There is also a chance Tom Burgess will depart a year early to play under his older brother Sam at Warrington following his abrupt, acrimonious departure from Demetriou’s coaching staff recently.
South Sydney’s roster is as strong as most teams and should be for the next couple of years at least with Arrow and Koloamatangi the only rep stars off contract at the end of 2024.
Wighton’s arrival could be just what the Rabbitohs need to reinvigorate their side, which has been fairly static over the past couple of years.
Wherever he ends up playing is not irrelevant but when it comes to Wighton, he could slot in at fullback, centre, five-eighth or even as a ball-playing lock if Murray is ever unavailable.
The challenge for Demetriou will be maximising the Rabbitohs’ return on their investment in the 30-year-old Raiders star.
The third year is often the make or break one for a first-time coach, if they make it that far.
Look at many of the recent examples of coaches who jumped or were pushed at lesser performing clubs midway through their third season at the helm – Dean Pay at the Bulldogs, John Morris at the Sharks, Nathan Brown at the Warriors, Trent Barrett at Manly, Anthony Griffin at Penrith and the Dragons.
The roster is strong, Wighton is one of the highest-profile players arriving at a new club next year and the premiership window is well and truly wide open for this current group.
So that means it’s a golden opportunity for Demetriou to prove his first-year effort to finish one game short of the GF was no fluke and to establish himself as a long-term NRL coach.
He’s under contract until the end of 2026 so that should give him some job security but this is the NRL we’re talking about and he’s already having to put up with reports that Burgess or Wayne Bennett could be in the frame if he can’t get this star-studded side firing next year.
The difference between South Sydney’s best and worst is way too severe. Premiership-winning teams don’t have regular losing streaks or performances where they get towelled up by 30 and that has been a common occurrence for the Rabbitohs in recent years.
Their six-game winning streak to rise to first in May was followed by a four losses in their next five matches to teams who ultimately finished eighth or lower.
Souths play on emotion but if key players start games flat, it quickly spreads and upset losses to teams they should beat in their sleep are far too frequent.
Demetriou has diversified their attack so they’re not so left-centric but with Mitchell, Wighton and Walker all naturally favouring that edge of the field, they could whip up a storm together which would be music to the ears of Johnston on the flank as he looks to reel in Ken Irvine’s all-time tryscoring record.
While the attack will only need minor adjustments, Souths have to improve their defence after ranking a middling eighth in 2023 and conceding five tries or more on nine occasions.
There’s a sense that time is not necessarily running out for this Souths bunch but with Cook and Walker in their 30s and entering the final two years of their contract, the premiership window won’t be open forever.
They will bounce back into the finals picture next year but solving where to play Wighton and Mitchell will be crucial, otherwise the Rabbitohs will again look like millionaires some weeks and paupers the next.