After successive NRL preliminary final fadeouts, coach Michael Maguire believes it is a matter of tweaking, rather than reinventing, his South Sydney team as they chase that increasingly elusive 21st premiership.
With the Rabbitohs up 14-0 over Manly 11 minutes into their preliminary final last season, their fans had every reason to believe they would celebrate their first grand final appearance since their last title – way back in 1971.
History shows that the Sea Eagles’ big game experience and the Rabbitohs’ inability to close out the big end-of-season games told.
To make matters worse, Souths’ bitter rivals the Sydney Roosters then defeated Manly to win the premiership and make for a very long offseason for the red and green.
But premiership hope springs eternal in Redfern every March and under Maguire Souths again have one of the best line-ups in the competition.
Maguire made a key move in the off-season, bringing young gun Luke Keary together with Adam Reynolds in the halves, with captain John Sutton moving from five eighth to lock to shore up the defence in the middle and better spark their attack.
It was a relatively small change but in Maguire’s eyes a major shift in strategy.
But it’s now on the backburner due to the pectoral injury Keary suffered at the Auckland Nines that will rule him out for around four months.
That means it’s likely back to the Rabbitohs of 2013 and that churning, up the middle of the ruck style led by the Burgess boys before looking for the likes of Greg Inglis out wide.
The Rabbitohs should then get the chance to better express themselves more later in 2014 as Keary returns.
“Everything we have gone through we are using it as motivation at different stages,” Maguire said.
“We have had a fair turnaround of players, a few new faces, and as much as we have had those rides previous it is quite a new year for us now.”
Maguire understood the need for the Rabbitohs to do something different.
After being the competition frontrunners for much of 2013, the Bunnies were caught on the hop at the business end of the season, in their loss to the Roosters in the final round minor premiership showdown and against Manly.
He instituted the change he felt was needed and while some of it may not emerge until the second half of the year, the Rabbitohs have learned the hard way the NRL season is a marathon and not a sprint.
“The players themselves really understand their roles but there are some thing we needed to change,” Maguire said.
“Luke Keary is now a great little halfback or a five-eighth. We have some quality people there we can roll around if changes need to be made.
“Luke and Adam (Reynolds) worked really hard together during the pre-season and developed some good combinations there.
“That had really added to our game. We have been a good team at working out way through the middle of the park but having John (Sutton) there it give us a few different opportunities to what we do with the ball.
“(But) I have learnt I have to cover a fair few things.
“We have other options there with Dylan Walker. With Lote (Tuqiri) and Joel Reddy coming in, it gives us some options in the outside backs.”
“Luke’s injury is really disappointing for everyone. He is a great kid. He is going to bounce back.”
SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS
Premierships: 20 – 1908, 1909, 1914, 1918, 1925-29, 1931, 1932, 1950, 1951, 1953-55, 1967, 1968, 1970, 1971
Finishes over the past three seasons: 2013 – preliminary final, 2012 – preliminary final, 2011 – 10th
Coach: Michael Maguire
Captain: John Sutton
Gains: Lote Tuqiri (Tigers), Kirisome Auva’a (Storm), Chris Grevsmuhl (Cowboys), Joe Picker (Raiders), Joel Reddy (Tigers)
Losses: Roy Asotasi (Warrington), Michael Crocker (retired), Andrew Everingham (Japanese rugby), Dylan Farrell (Dragons), Justin Hunt (Eels), Matt King (retired), Jeff Lima (Catalan Dragons), Nathan Peats (Eels), Josh Starling (Sea Eagles), Fetuli Talanoa (Hull FC)
Strength: An awesome pack that has lost little in the way of muscle with off-season departures. Terribly hard to stop when they get on a roll.
Weakness: Two successive preliminary final fadeouts speak of a lack of belief and coolness to close out big end-of-season games.
Money Man: Greg Inglis. Much of the Rabbitohs attack is centred around Inglis’ kick returns and his ability to break the line with his giant fend and tacklebusting running.
One to watch: Luke Keary. The Rabbitohs’ Next Big Thing. Unfortunately fans won’t see him till late in the season due to injury.
Best team: Greg Inglis, Nathan Merritt, Beau Champion, Dylan Walker, Bryson Goodwin, Luke Keary, Adam Reynolds, George Burgess, Isaac Luke, Sam Burgess, Ben Te’o, Chris McQueen, John Sutton (capt). Interchange: Apisai Koroisau, Dave Tyrell, Thomas Burgess, Jason Clark
Predicted finish: 2nd