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Drop it: Ilias and Hastings weren't selected, but saying they were dropped might miss the point entirely

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Editor
20th March, 2024
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Team List Tuesday is rarely that exciting, but this week’s edition was a real doozy.

Granted, we already knew most of it from the drip drip of leaks that come out of clubs to test the waters ahead of major selection decisions and the more old school newsgathering that can be attained by simply turning up to training and watching.

What’s that in the halves for Souths? A Dean Hawkins shaped figure where once Lachlan Ilias stood?

And a Newcastle? Nary a Jackson Hastings in sight, we were told, until it turned out that he wasn’t training that day anyway.

Coaches are stuck between a rock and a hard place on these things. Take a player out and they’ve been dropped, dumped, ditched and that’s just the Ds.

A key aspect of their role is three Cs – competitiveness, cohesion and confidence – and, when selecting squads, it’s always a balancing act.

They want their players to know that nobody is safe and good showings are required, but also not to move the team around too much and not to engender a fear of failure that leads to lack of risk-taking.

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In that context, ‘dropped’ doesn’t really work, because there are plenty of moving parts and, in the first week of the season, plenty of scope to move them around now in order to gain the best performance later.

Coaches generally know who their best players are, which is why they picked them from Round 1 in the first place, and who they want on the field when the whips get cracking.

But if you’re 0-2 after two games, however, then you need to be seen to do something both to take the pressure off yourself – if it’s not the players, it’s you, in the eyes of the media and fans – but also to focus the group’s minds and elevate collective performance.

For Jason Demetriou at Souths, who has dealt with a completely needless off-field issue with one of his key players, Latrell Mitchell, which in turn rehashed a narrative that some players are above criticism, it’s a pretty easy move to take control and move an important player out of the team.

Is that the correct decision? Who knows. We’ll find out.

Is Lachlan Ilias the best half Souths have? Given that he was selected on every available occasion in the number 7 jumper for the previous 52 matches, you’d have to say that Souths think he is.

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Hawkins won NSW Cup Player of the Year last season and is probably too good for second grade, but he’s older than Ilias and has been in the system just as long, but had never been chosen above him until this week.

We don’t know the discussions at the selection table and what specific parameters Ilias is being asked to hit, and it is a lot easier to swap him out when you have someone like Hawkins, who has done all the things you would want your second string guy to do.

Ilias wasn’t the reason that Souths lost to Manly in Vegas, and he wasn’t the reason they lost to Brisbane last Thursday night.

He is, however, the easiest player to drop from the stacked spine of Mitchell, Cody Walker and Damien Cook.

If making an example of him gets a message to the others, then that short term pain might end up in long term gain.

In that case, ‘dropped’ probably isn’t the word to use. ‘Made an example of’ doesn’t sound any better, but if communicated openly to the individual, then it could benefit all parties.

Ilias might be being told that he needs to up his game, and reminded of the privilege of playing NRL by a week in reggies, or it might be that he is being used as a scapegoat for the other players in the side, a message that nobody is safe.

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SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 08: Rabbitohs head coach Jason Demetriou looks on during a South Sydney Rabbitohs NRL Training Session at Redfern Oval on March 08, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Jason Demetriou. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

If Ilias buys in, then Demetriou might have his cake and eat in terms of kicking everyone up the backside without smashing the confidence of one of the Bunnies’ most important players and also rewarding Hawkins, who has earned his crack.

Ilias responded to his only prior case of adversity successfully when hooked in his rookie year, so the precedent suggests that his character would respond to that treatment.

South Sydney’s next three fixtures are at home against the Bulldogs, Warriors and Sharks before a bye, so now would be as good a time as any to make the big move.

Imagine, however, that Hawkins is a worse player than Ilias, which, to reiterate, is what they thought until very recently indeed.

Not only has the side suffered a needless upheaval, they have also done so at a time that risks losing eminently winnable fixtures.

This is the risk that Demetriou is taking, and he’ll be aware of that.

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We saw this played out in bold type last year with the Roosters.

Trent Robinson dropped Sam Walker to make a point about his levels and cast it as that rather than him being dropped. The media said he’d been dropped, but Trent never did and neither did Walker.

The half then suffered an injury and for it to become abundantly clear that the first grade attack had a big, creative hole in it that Walker would have been perfect to fill.

Obviously, we don’t know if he would have got injured had he not been playing reggies, but the less Walker played, the more clear it was that he had not been the problem and that, in truth, the Roosters would happily have taken some defensive deficiencies to add his huge attacking upside.

When he came back, it’s beyond doubt that they were a better side and, indeed, Walker was a better player for it. His showings at the back end when it mattered most suggested that the call was right from Robinson.

NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 06: Adam O'Brien coach of the Newcastle Knights during a Newcastle Knights NRL training session at Newcastle on February 06, 2020 in Newcastle, Australia. (Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)

Adam O’Brien. (Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)

The case in Newcastle is even more complex.

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Hastings absolutely wasn’t the reason they lost in Round 1 or Round 2 and he was one of the key reasons why they were so good at the end of 2023.

Adam O’Brien has a similar situation to Demetriou in that the next guy up is enticing, with Jack Cogger off the back of a Grand Final win with Penrith, and thus it’s an easy call to make to swap them in.

The Knights find themselves in a bind created by their own success.

They signed Cogger when they were meandering and mediocre last year, probably with the intention of playing him at 6 and Hastings at 7 in 2024, only for the team to click and go on an insane run that made Tyson Gamble undroppable at five eighth.

On talent alone, it probably should have been the 6 who dropped out, but it would be unfair in the extreme for that to happen on form.

They also signed another half, Will Pryce, at a time when they were trying to make Kalyn Ponga into a five eighth, probably with the idea that the Englishman start life in the NRL as a fullback where he could attack freely with less worries about his defence.

By the time they needed a new half, Cogger, they no longer needed a fullback, because Ponga won the Dally M while playing that position.

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It’s unbalanced the roster, as they are paying far too much for those positions without actually knowing who the best option is.

It’s good to have options, but it’s better to have a clear hierarchy that you can work through.

Throw in that Jayden Brailey, their captain and theoretically best hooker, is back from injury and the plan from Rounds 1 & 2, simply carrying an unneccesary half utility on the bench, doesn’t work either.

Jackson Hastings

(Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images)

Hastings goes, but doesn’t really deserve it.

He is, however, exactly the sort of character who would respond to this call positively.

Having flamed out of the NRL the first time around and ended up in the Super League, he revitalised his career by taking on responsibility, being the best version of himself and winning Man of Steel with unfashionable Salford, then a Minor Premiership with Wigan.

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When faced with massive adversity, Hastings flourished and became the player who earned a move back to the NRL, then a better move to Newcastle, then lead the Knights to one of their best finishes in years.

There’s good grounds for both Demetriou or O’Brien trying to extract performances from other players by using guys they know can take it on personality level, while also attempting to stoke that righteous fire within.

What we don’t get, however, is the counterfactual of what might have happened by simply doing nothing at all.

Two games is no sample size to work off as far as judging performances, but all the data would suggest that changing the side too much does have a very negative effect on cohesion and, ultimately, results.

Not only has the side suffered a needless upheaval, they have also done so at a time that risks losing eminently winnable fixtures.

Newcastle get Melbourne this weekend with both of their halves out – not by choice – and could sneak a result.

That might justify the decision making, but will it make them better long term?

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For both sides, who should have aspirations of finishing in the top eight, then the most important team selection is the one that you can put on the field in the finals, which likely includes both Hastings and Ilias.

Both play roles that often foreground others, notably Ponga, Mitchell and Walker, and it will be interesting to see how their replacements step into that specific tactical job.

It might be a case of not knowing what you have lost until it’s gone for Demetriou and O’Brien.

Rolling the dice is their prerogative as far as team selection is concerned, and it might have the desired effect in kickstarting other members of the team, giving hungry guys a deserved chance and shocking the systems of two blokes that have the personality types to respond well.

There’s an argument that making such moves now, early on, will send the message at a time when it can still make a difference while also letting the coach reintegrate their player down the line.

If it works out, then both coaches will have positively impacted their team through being proactive.

If it doesn’t, it’ll look like they panicked, flailed about and interrupted team cohesion at a time when building it should be a high priority.

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The coaches have made their decisions for now, and the team lists this week should be seen in those terms. Just don’t call it dropped.

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