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Demetriou is gone, but will the issues persist for the South Sydney Rabbitohs?

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South Sydney Rabbitohs, NRL, Jason Demetriou,

Wayne Bennett and Craig Bellamy have been floated as long-term successors to Jason Demetriou at South Sydney. But, can anyone save the club from the multi-layered turmoil they’re embroiled in?

Cast your mind back to the end of the 2021 NRL season. Penrith were champions, the first in their dynastic three-peat achieved over a surging South Sydney side. Despite the loss, few could argue the Rabbitohs’ future looked anything short of rosy.

They had one of the competition’s strongest spines, though halfback Adam Reynolds’ move to Brisbane had been confirmed long before the final whistle rang, a top three lock, Cameron Murray, and a host of promising forwards, notably future NSW origin representative Keon Koloamatangi, prop Tevita Tatola and Jai Arrow.

Sure Reynolds, the only halfback to feature in a Grand Final for Souths in a generation, and Wayne Bennett, rugby league’s answer to Sir Alex Ferguson, were leaving. So too were experienced strike centre Dane Gagai and Queensland representative back rower, Jayd’n Sua.

But the core elements of their indomitable left-edge attack; Cody Walker, Latrell Mitchell and Alex Johnston, remained. So too Cameron Murray and Damien Cook, two crucial components of Souths’ side, plus representative stars like Koloamatangi, Campbell Graham and Tom Burgess. Add into this a head coach anointed by Bennett as his ideal successor and a promising halfback described as the incoming coach as the best the club will ever see and all seemed well at Souths.

Drag any Rabbitohs fan from 2021 and plant them into the turmoil of 2024 and, more than angry, they’ll be shocked. How can a side accustomed to preliminary finals in recent history find themselves rooted to the bottom of the NRL ladder and in crisis?

Even more importantly, where to from here for Souths? Is it simply a case of a side needing tough love, or are there structural issues requiring demolishing and rebuilding?

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Can anyone fix South Sydney’s rough immediate future?

The dust had barely settled on Souths’ Grand Final loss in 2021 when Wayne Bennett called incoming Rabbitohs head coach Jason Demetriou a ‘wonderful servant to the game and, to me personally, he’s been a wonderful co-coach.’

Bennett’s comments, unwillingly or otherwise, painted Demetriou as equally responsible for South Sydney’s successful 2021 as he was. Bennett would go on to express his belief there wouldn’t be ‘too many ripples at all,’ with JD at the helm. Yet, ripples there were to begin 2022. Souths started that year with five wins from their first 10 games but rebounded to surge to their fifth straight Preliminary Final, where they lost to eventual Premiers, Penrith.

While they recorded their lowest ladder position (seventh) since Michael Maguire’s final season in 2017, 2022 saw South Sydney claw their way to a prelim with a rookie head coach and halfback. It wasn’t as rosy as previous years but their side remained strong, with an experienced core and proven track record of deep finals runs.

All roads pointed toward sustained improvement in 2023 and over the first 11 rounds, Souths were a clear Premiership threat. Their right side attack clicked, scoring 41% of the 46 tries over the opening stanza of their season, while their left edge remained as potent as ever.

Yet, something monumental occurred at Redfern after round 11. Since then, they won just five games, lost 13, missed the finals they were certain to make and began 2024 with less competitiveness than a reserve grade side.

After a promising start, South Sydney fans and the board have decided Jason Demetriou is not the man to fix their beloved club. His coaching career at the Rabbitohs ended in a media frenzy, with assistant coach Ben Hornby replacing him in the interim. No one should be surprised at this outcome. The writing had been on the wall for months.

South Sydney, Latrell Mitchell
Latrell Mitchell has come under fire following South Sydney’s poor 2024 performances

Hornby is a bandaid when South Sydney needs surgery. A temporary fix the club is hopeful will keep the ship above water until they can denote an appropriate Demetriou successor. Talk of Craig Bellamy coming in has died drastically recently, while discussions around Wayne Bennett have only intensified since Demetriou’s departure has been confirmed.

Bennett is interested in the job. He’s said as much recently. Bennett isn’t the only man on the coaching shortlist, that includes Michael Maguire, Sam Burgess, and Michael Cheika, among others.

While the consensus is Wayne is the man to save the Rabbitohs, one must wonder if any coach can save this South Sydney side? And can they do it quickly? Public perception is that this Rabbitohs side should be Premiership heavyweights. Rightfully so. On paper, their side is extraordinary, littered with representative stars and reliable first graders.

Paper doesn’t win games though. Neither do the Rabbitohs. There are dire problems in the club’s football department, made glaring by club great Sam Burgess’ dramatic fallout with Demetriou in mid-2023 and subsequent departure.

Where there’s smoke, there tends to be fire. Burgess claimed Cody Walker and Latrell Mitchell received preferential treatment from Demetriou, resulting in a squad-wide decline of standards, something Burgess, who delivered Souths their first Premiership in 43 years in 2014, knows a thing or two about.

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Let’s get one thing straight; in most teams worldwide, star players receive preferential treatment from coaches in one way or another. In English football, coaches allowed former Chelsea star Eden Hazard to coast through training because they knew he’d perform when the time came.

That’s the key though; the players receiving the preferential treatment must perform at the weekend. They must compete and, ultimately, win more than they lose. The fact that Walker and Mitchell are two of the side’s leaders at a time when their form’s sliding like it’s on ice means their performances, which have been well below their lofty standards, are ferociously and microscopically analysed by fans and media alike.

Mitchell and Walker aren’t the only underperforming Rabbitohs this season. Lachlan Ilias was dropped to reserve grade for a string of poor performances, though many now perceive his dropping as a further sign none of South Sydney’s leaders are held to account. Unfortunately, Ilias won’t return to first grade this season after suffering a horrific broken leg against the Warriors in NSW Cup.

Outside of their spine, the Rabbitohs are far too error-prone, particularly coming out of their end, miss more tackles and complete fewer sets than just about every side and struggle to dominate opposition forward packs and gain momentum.

In the short-term, South Sydney’s only hope of escaping the off-field cyclone surging around them is performing to their level. It’s hoped Hornby can turn the sinking ship around for the remainder of the year, blood the club’s young stars into the first grade fold and provide a steady foundation for a new coach to build from.

But where to from there? Wayne Bennett could come back, so too could Sam Burgess, while someone like Michael Maguire would be ideal. But he’d have to vacate the NSW Origin coaching gig. And there’s the small fact he suffered an unceremonious exit from the club only seven years ago.

South’s don’t necessarily need a revolutionary footballing mind. Their play should take care of itself with its roster. Instead, they need a leader who can clean the club’s culture up and reignite the fire in the squad’s belly.

Remember, this is an outfit that was a Premiership favourite 12 months ago. Such rapid declines aren’t easy fixes, but it’s not as if the Rabbitohs are the Tigers or the Bulldogs; teams with long roads ahead of them to recover from years of rot.

Whoever South Sydney brings in long-term, the ideal candidate should be an exceptional man manager, first and foremost.

And whoever decides to accept this potentially poisoned chalice of a role must do so with the understanding the hardest part of their week will be on the training paddock. This South Sydney locker room is littered with stars. But that brings egos, which the next Souths coach must be adept at managing. Otherwise, the ship will sink before it leaves the harbour.

Any coach would chomp rejoice to coach a side with Mitchell, Walker, Cook, Murray, Koloamatangi and Jack Wighton. By the time they walk in the front door, Jai Arrow and Campbell Graham, the club’s standout performer in 2023, will be back on deck.

Sure, elements of the squad are ageing. Cook and Walker aren’t getting younger. Though Wighton is a fantastic successor to Walker at five-eighth, and Pete Mamouzelos has long been touted as a future first grade hooker.

And sure, other elements are underperforming; notably the club’s middle forwards and halfback, but Ilias has shown he can function at NRL level and Dean Hawkins was the NSW Cup Player of the Year in 2023, which counts for something. English halfback Lewis Dodds is also arriving in 2025, with hopes he can be the man to steer the side around the park.

The problem is, none of those three are Adam Reynolds, and never will be. Replacing him at Souths is like replacing Tom Brady at the New England Patriots. But the coaching staff, and fan base, must realise halfbacks don’t grow on trees, they’re developed, which takes time and causes growing pains.

Away from the coaching and playing staff, this dreadful window in South Sydney history must inspire the club’s hierarchy to reflect and self-assess. Recruitment and roster development at the club have been sub-par for a few years now.

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Deciding not to give Adam Reynolds a longer deal has backfired, with the Premiership-winning halfback aging like wine in Brisbane, while allowing Hame Sele to leave when there is a desperate lack of middle forwards at the club is another oversight.

But despite this blip, there’s light at the end of the South Sydney tunnel, if they get it right. Their roster is talented and, apart from a few pieces, hardly aging. Tallis Duncan, Davvy Moale and Tyrone Munro are three of the best youngsters in their position. Jye Gray and Dion Teaupa also have big wraps on them too.

The reality is, that the fix to South Sydney’s current plague is neither quick nor easy, nor can a new coach arrive with a magic wand and clear it away. The only way out is through, and for South Sydney, the only way through is player accountability.

Kyle Robbins
Kyle Robbins
Kyle is a senior sports writer and producer at Only Sports who lives and breathes sport, with a particular burning passion for everything soccer, rugby league, and cricket. You’ll most commonly find him getting overly hopeful about the Bulldogs and Chelsea’s prospects. Find Kyle on LinkedIn.

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