With Roster Rebuilt, Rabbitohs Plan Premiership Farewell For Bennett
Brad Walter NRL.com Senior Reporter
Thu 17 Dec 2020, 05:28 PM
The 2020 season was supposed to be a transition year for South Sydney after the departures of Sam Burgess, Greg Inglis, John Sutton and George Burgess but the Rabbitohs managed to fall just one game short of a grand final appearance for the third consecutive year.
It’s a result that gives Souths brains trust of Wayne Bennett, Jason Demetriou and Ben Hornby both confidence heading into Bennett’s final season in charge and frustration thinking about what could have been achieved if the side had finished higher than sixth at the end of the regular season.
With Tom Burgess, Tevita Tatola, Liam Knight and Mark Nicholls stepping up to cover the loss of Sam and George Burgess, Sutton and the injured Ethan Lowe, the Rabbitohs haven’t required the forward rebuild many expected and their pack will be bolstered by the long-awaited arrival of Jai Arrow.
Latrell Mitchell stepped into Inglis’s No.1 jersey after the intense scrutiny over his off-season switch from Sydney Roosters to the Rabbitohs but his 2020 campaign was also cut short by injury, along with that of star centres James Roberts and Braidon Burns.
Up stepped Corey Allan, who finished the year in the victorious Queensland Origin team, and fellow rookie Jaxson Paulo, while Alex Johnston convinced the South hierarchy to re-sign him after a season in which he topped the NRL’s try-scoring ladder.
Bennett and his coaching team also faced the prospect of filling a leadership vacuum after the retirement of the club’s previous three captains – Sutton, Inglis and Burgess.
Halfback Adam Reynolds was named captain but five-eighth Cody Walker and hooker Damien Cook proved able deputies and all three thrived on the added responsibility.
With the trio leading the way Souths piled on 144 points in their three matches against Sydney Roosters, Newcastle and Parramatta before being eliminated 20-16 by Penrith in the grand final qualifier.
“I think 2020 was always a bit of a transition year for us in terms of losing Sam and Sutto and George Burgess, and GI at the start of last year as well,” Demetriou said.
"They are four pivotal figures at the club over the last decade so it was always going to be a bit of a transition with other guys stepping up and having a bit more of a voice but also to get used to them not being around the field on a weekly basis.
"Wayne did a good job with that senior group in giving them that responsibility and expectation that was on their shoulders. I thought Reyno, Cookie and Cody worked really well together as a unit and they grew as the season went on.
“I think they will come into this pre-season feeling a lot more comfortable now that know where they fit in that leadership role.”
Mitchell has also appeared more comfortable at training after the hamstring injury which limited him to just 14 matches in his first season at Redfern.
Before rupturing the proximal hamstring tendon in his left leg in the round 16 loss to Parramatta, Mitchell had dispelled doubts about his ability to successfully switch from centre to fullback and is expected to start the 2021 season in the No.1 jersey.
“I think within himself Latrell knew what he was capable of but to go out there and do it before he picked up an injury to finish the season, with the form he was in and way he was playing, has definitely put him in a good place for next season,” Demetriou said.
"He is moving well and he is running better than I expected him to be at this time of the year, which is a real positive, but he is just confident – not just with his footy, but he is confident around South Sydney and what it means to be a Rabbitoh. He has embraced it.
“There was lot of talk and interference around his move last year so this year there is a lot less of that and it is a lot more about him concentrating on the things he needs to. We are excited about the start of the season next year.”
In fact, Demetriou says that if a team had to be selected now for round one only 10 players could be considered certainties.
The competition is fiercest among the outside backs, with Mitchell, Johnston, Burns, Allen, Paulo, Dane Gagai, Campbell Graham, Steven Marsters and new recruit Tautau Moga all vying for spots.
In the forwards, Arrow will add experience and class after joining Souths from the Gold Coast, while the Rabbitohs have also signed Jacob Host from St George Illawarra to bolster a pack featuring Origin backrowers Cameron Murray and Jaydn Su’a.
The emergence of Keaon Koloamatangi and Jed Cartwright last season provide depth, along with the likes of Hame Sele and Patrick Mogo.
“We will go into 2021 with a stronger feel to the squad and I think a lot of that is off the back of the experience and the exposure to the NRL some of those players received last year,” Demetriou said.
"Jai brings that steel into the middle of the field and experience. He is an Origin player, his work ethic is second to none and I know how much he loves being part of the team so having worked with him in 2017 [at the Broncos] I am really looking forward to having him at the Rabbitohs.
“I have also worked with him in the past and I am excited about what he brings to our footy team. He is a genuine wide-running edge back-rower and that is probably an area we needed to strengthen in so with the likes of him and Jed Cartwright there as well we are covered in that area.”
Despite having already been appointed to take over from Bennett in 2022, Demetriou said next season will be no different to their previous four together as they try to take the team beyond the penultimate weekend of the Telstra Premiership.
“Last year was a good building year for us but we have got to make sure we keep building and go that little bit further than we did last year,” Demetriou said.
"At the end of the day we finished sixth last season. We didn’t finish in the top four and that made it really hard to get to the grand final and win it from there. We were hanging on at the back end of the year, we were pretty busted so a top-four finish and a week off would have been massive for us.
“We believe we have put a roster together that is capable of doing that but that’s where our focus on improvement will be. We want to make sure we are more consistent from the start of the season and earn the right to be at the top end of the top four.”