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Pressure Points: Wighton could be the last piece in Souths' jigsaw – or the albatross that will hang around their necks

10th December, 2023
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10th December, 2023
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Much as we like to think of the NRL as a 17-team competition in which anyone can win, we all know that it’s not really like that.

Sure, it’s a lot more even than most soccer leagues – Bayern Munich’s eleven championships in a row stands out – but still, it’s pretty obvious that not everyone can win going in.

On top of that, while chat about ‘Premiership Windows’ is fun, plenty of clubs don’t have them and others never exit them.

The Wests Tigers’ window is on the 53rd floor of a skyscraper, whereas the Roosters’ is more like a shutter flapping in a tropical breeze.

South Sydney’s was hermetically sealed for years but prized open by Michael Maguire, and realistically, it hasn’t shut since.

They’ve made five Prelims and a Grand Final since, which is either the sign of a club that is consistently excellent or evidence of perpetual failure, depending on where you think they should be.

2023 was a mitigated disaster, with Jason Demetriou’s men looking like world-beaters in May but panel-beaters in September, missing the finals altogether after topping the ladder after Round 11.

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That mitigation, however, is clear. Every year there is a team that cops it from Origin, injuries and random variance, and in 2023, that was Souths.

In fact, one could argue that it was also Parramatta and the Roosters, who were brought back to the pack by a slew of things that, largely, they couldn’t control.

For starters, the 12 wins the Rabbits did get would have got them into the eight in plenty of years when the comp was less even, and their draw was much tougher than other teams that did make it in.

They achieved those despite being smashed by key position injuries, notably to Latrell Mitchell, and a slew of defeats in Origin where the playing field was artificially levelled by their absences.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 25: Latrell Mitchell of the Rabbitohs celebrates with Rabbitohs head coach Jason Demetriou after victroy during the round four NRL match between South Sydney Rabbitohs and Manly Sea Eagles at Accor Stadium on March 25, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Latrell Mitchell with Rabbitohs coach Jason Demetriou. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Moreover, there was clearly internal strife that distracted from what the team was able to do on the field, resulting in the flameout that ultimately saw the season unravel.

Lastly, the run of games on the road during the FIFA Women’s World Cup might have made great commercial sense, but backfired as far as the playing group was concerned, with Souths losing three of the four games that they themselves chose to move.

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Bad as they were at times, it’s reasonable to suggest that 2024 will see their luck turn, with fewer random acts of misfortune working against them.

With the marquee addition of Jack Wighton, they have either set themselves up for a proper title tilt or created an albatross that will hang over their heads all year. It’s not quite now or bust, but it’s close to it.

The former Raider should be able to add considerably to Demetriou’s options and, with a good wind, could supercharge them right back into contention.

His motivations to move are myriad: the chance to play with his great mate Latrell, the opportunity to win a Premiership, a heavily touted future boxing career that will only be assisted by living in Sydney…it’s a long list.

Souths won’t really care either way. Wighton is a genuine star and to get him for the price that they have is a huge coup.

On a tactical level, his arrival will shift Isaiah Tass to the wing, finally providing some backline metres to the Bunnies and taking what was already one of the best left edges around to the next level.

Cody Walker of the Rabbitohs runs the ball

Cody Walker. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

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Though he won a Dally M playing as a five eighth, the jury is still out on whether Wighton was ever at his best there. In 17 games for the Blues and Kangaroos, only once was he chosen in the 6 jumper, and that was Game 3 of 2021 when Jarome Luai was injured.

Until last year, however, he was a walk-up start for Australia as a centre, and across his entire career, the best of his creativity in attack has been done in service of himself rather than for others.

Across his career, Wighton has been worth a line break every 2.7 games and a line break assist every 2.4 – compare, for example, to Cody Walker at 1.5 and 1.

This isn’t a criticism, by the way, more of a way of showing that Wighton’s big-bodied, run-first mentality is his best trait rather than some of the more subtle arts of halfback play.

Jarome Luai, a much more soft-touch player, makes a line break himself every 3.3 games but puts on one for someone else every 1.4 and even a quite similar player to Wighton, Cam Munster, has numbers look a lot more like Walker’s.

A late career move to the centres, with someone else creating the play for him to finish, is exactly what Wighton needs.

The move will also assist Souths in the Origin period – assuming Wighton remains retired from rep footy – as the centre could play fullback with Mitchell on Blues duty or 6 if Walker gets picked again.

Souths essentially have a spare rep-level spine player lurking in the centres, perfect for games that they dropped last year.

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Their fixture list ahead of Origin games goes Bye, a Trbojevic and DCE-less Manly then the Dolphins, with the Titans, Bye and the Tigers on back-up weekends. Needless to say, this is an unbelievable draw for South Sydney.

The arrival of such an elite player on below-market rates has raised expectations in Redfern, and so it should.

Their losses going into 2024 are Hame Sele, Blake Taaffe and Jed Cartwright, but of them, only Sele was a nailed on starter – and he has been directly replaced by Sean Keppie in the middle.

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Last year saw the emergence of more than a few talents, notably winger Tyrone Munro and Cam Murray clone Tallis Duncan, plus an extra year of grade into Davvy Moale and Shaq Mitchell, who though 27 only debuted in 2022.

Beyond that, there’s guys like Michael Chee-Kam, Jacob Host, Taane Milne, Daniel Suluya-Fifa and Izaac Thompson, all of whom would play first grade elsewhere but simply fill out the squad at Souths.

It’s this depth that heaps the pressure onto Demetriou to succeed. In his two years at head coach and prior role as assistant under Wayne Bennett, he has developed a highly characteristic style of play.

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Brisbane proved last year that the most likely way that the Panthers dynasty will end is via a more offensively-minded style of football, a point that Souths also evidenced earlier in the year.

Nobody has out-Penrithed Penrith, but some teams have been able to beat them through attack.

With Wighton in the line-up, Demetriou can only lean into this style more. Theoretically at least, he completes the jigsaw.

If Souths fail to make at least a Prelim and, realistically, the Grand Final, then such a high profile signing will be forever used against the club and the coach as a largesse that didn’t work.

Moreover, given the rumours of unrest caused by the treatment Walker and Mitchell – which Souths strenuously deny – it won’t be long before the addition of Latrell’s mate becomes another stick with which to beat the club.

As JD mentioned frequently last year, the best answer is wins. When you’re winning, nobody questions the coach or the culture. With a side set up to win and win now, that has to happen in 2024.

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