South Sydney may have taken some joy in defeating the Dragons on Friday night, but their season has been far from memorable thus far. They are currently languishing in 11th position on the competition ladder after 22 rounds, with just seven wins to their name and thirteen losses.
Their record following 2014 and the glory that ensued doesn’t make for pretty reading either – on just a single occasion have they made the finals. The year was 2015, and they were hustled out in the first week by Cronulla, 28 points to 12. They haven’t been back since, and 2017 is destined to end the same way.
So where has it all gone wrong for South Sydney since Sam Burgess lifted the trophy with a busted cheek bone less than three years’ ago?
Earlier this year I wrote an article on why Michael Maguire would be the next coach to be given the flick.
The weight of history was against him, and there were many parallels that could be drawn between the sacking of Geoff Toovey at Manly back in 2015, two years after making the Grand Final, and Maguire’s current tenure at South Sydney.
But after hearing him speak about the passion he has for the club, it appears he might just be the right man to turn the Bunnies fortunes around.
It makes you wonder what else could cause a proud club to slip from drought-breaking premiers to struggling cellar dwellers in such a remarkably short period of time.
The roster is almost entirely different, but you expect that given it has been close to three years since the Bunnies hoisted the Provan Summons Trophy, don’t you?
Well, no. To put this into perspective, only James Tamou is missing from the starting 13 that lined-up for the Cowboys in the 2015 Grand Final.
The Roosters premiership winning side of 2013 looks much the same today as well, with the exception of a few key omissions – Sonny-Bill Williams (Rugby Union), Anthony Minichello (Retirement), James Maloney (Sharks) and Michael Jennings (Parramatta).
The message to take away here is that if you have a premiership winning side, you generally try to keep it together until a players’ form drops or the group of listed players exceeds the salary cap. Not until it reaches this point do you start the culling process. And even when this does become a necessity, you certainly don’t decimate your spine and draft in players that add no value to the current squad.
South Sydney have done exactly this. Since winning the premiership back in 2014, they have pushed out players like Luke Keary, Apisai Koroisau and Dylan Walker, who have excelled at their new clubs and left the Bunnies to lick their wounds and wonder what life would be like had they never parted ways.
This is where Russell Crowe is introduced to the narrative. It has been well documented that he has assumed some control of the shape of the side and kept players at the club based on their personality rather than their footballing prowess.
His love for the Burgess brothers is another consistent thread.
Sam, Tom and George have been retained by South Sydney for the last few years despite just one of them being a deserving recipient of a contract renewal. Sam is a world-class player, a workhorse, and someone you’d give your right arm to lure to your club. His brothers, however, simply don’t bring the same star-power, and have caused Maguire more headaches than joy over the past two seasons with their sloppy ball-handling skills.
At some point, you have to ask if it’s worth moving them on and looking at other options, because their salaries are taking up a chunk of the cap that has seen far too many talented players pass through the back door of the South Sydney club office.
At the end of this season, talented winger Bryson Goodwin will join that list. You have to wonder whether he was ever allowed to reach his full potential at South Sydney. Sure, there were bright spots, but he never managed to reach the heights that he did at the Bulldogs way back in 2009, where he earned his first international cap with New Zealand.
On top of South Sydney’s poor management, their recruitment strategy must come into question. Why was Robbie Farah brought to the club this year when Damian Cook was more than ready to assume the post left vacant by the departing Cameron McInnes? (There’s another name to add to that list.)
We’ve seen already this year, particularly as the season has begun to wind down, that Damian Cook is Maguire’s first choice hooker. So why bother wasting money on Farah?
I understand that he was NSW’s starting number nine at the time of his purchase, but $750,000 a year for a player that spends most of his time on the bench is another example of the tangled web South Sydney are weaving through mismanagement. He’s earning almost as much as Burgess, despite playing a quarter of the Englishman’s minutes.
South Sydney have got their recruitment so wrong that John Sutton has been forced to spend most of this season at five-eighth. Imagine a world in which Keary, who has set the world on fire for the Roosters this year, was lining up alongside Adam Reynolds. The former a running five-eight with speed to burn. The latter a 130 game stalwart with one of the best kicking games in the competition on his day – just ask the Panthers.
Yet fans have been stuck watching John Sutton, who has offered very few edge of your seat moments through 22 rounds of competition.
His stats paint an accurate picture of his ongoing struggles – 4 try assists and just 8 line-breaks so far in 2017. Compare this to some of the competition’s other five-eighths like Gareth Widdop (16 try assists), or even young Brock Lamb in a struggling Knights side (8 try assists), and you can start to see why the Rabbitohs are cemented to the bottom of the competition ladder.
They might argue that Sutton has spent a lot of time in halves this season due to an injury to Greg Inglis, who himself has spent time at five-eight in the past. But a lack of recruitment foresight is what constantly ruins a clubs’ premiership run, and few of those currently making a march towards the finals don’t have a contingency plan in place.
When Cooper Cronk isn’t around, Melbourne have Brodie Croft; North Queensland have Te Maire Martin, whom without they might be struggling to compete; the Eels had Gutherson before Moses arrived; and the Broncos, well they’re spoilt for choice.
South Sydney have set themselves up for failure, and lack the foresight that clubs like Melbourne and coaches like Bellamy pride themselves on. They’ve said farewell to two hookers who are now starting at rival clubs (McInnes and Koroisau), an extremely talented number six who has excelled since being given the chance to shine and not confined to the bench (Luke Keary), and now must make do with players who are out of position or completely out of their depth.
Russell Crowe might be a world-renowned actor, but a man manager he is not. If he knows what is good for the club, he will take a back seat and leave the roster to Michael Maguire and his associates. Maybe then we will see more gems like Angus Crichton be unearthed.