By STEVE MASCORD
SOUTH Sydney started last year with no halfback – and finished the season the same way.
When RLW ran a rule over what 2012 had in store for the Pride Of The League, we weren’t sure who would inherit the no.7 shirt from Parramatta-bound Chris Sandow. In the queue were a couple of unknowns called Adam Reynolds and Ryan Carr but the position was seen as a weakness of the squad inherited by Wigan recruit, coach Michael Maguire.
Eight months later, the Rabbits’ title hopes snapped with the hamstring of Reynolds, who had surged to such stardom that he is now a leading NSW Origin contender.
Halfback was not a weakness at all – until then. The injury occurred in the 27th minute of the preliminary final against Canterbury, when Souths were leading 8-4. Without a playmaker, they crashed 32-8.
“This time last year, I didn’t know what to expect really,” says coach Michael Maguire.
“Now we have Adam and Sutto (John Sutton) with a good understanding of each other. Having said that, we have some good support for them – players right behind them coming through.
“Having that sort of depth is a good position to be in.”
Last season was one of seismic changes at Redfern. Maguire arrived at a club with flamboyance off the field to match the freewheeling attack on the other side of the white line.
He had to tighten up the bunnies’ defence and also made them a little more defensive in their public outlook. Talk of grand finals was outlawed, he became the only spokesman on recruitment and football-related matters and there were times when the hatches were well and truly battered down – if politely.
But fans and observers no longer have theories and hopes for what South Sydney can do. They now KNOW. This season is more a question of whether potential can be realised.
“The players understanding what we’re trying to do here is the biggest change,” says Maguire, when asked about how his role has evolved in 12 months.
“…the processes and the structures we put together over last season, now they’re a lot slicker I suppose, with what’s required of each player. Their understanding of their roles is greater.
“We’ve got to take that into the season and show it but training itself has probably been sharper.”
Maguire says he won’t stop his holistic focus on the way the club appears to the outside world, 12 months in. He’s not about to become a mere technician. “I can’t speak for everyone else but as head coach, I see that as part of my role here,” he says.
“That’s understanding we’re working here as one organisation and the administration … we’re moving forward in one direction. From the sponsorship point of view and the corporate stuff outside of football, I can really see it progressing.
“It’s all part of the growth to where we want to go as a club.”
On the field, there are specifics to address. Michael Crocker is captain.
“We’ve still got the leadership group – underneath, nothing’s changed,” Maguire says. “It’s just that Michael … it’s going to be more of a spokesman-type role from that position.”
Hooker Issac Luke seems likely to take a more influential role. “It’s down to himself and where his game is now,” the coach comments.
“We’ll see him take a greater role. He has taken an interest, he understands his role better and wants to do that each week.”
And fullback Greg Inglis looks so imposing that colleague Mark Geyer last week reckoned he could be the greatest player ever!
“I’ve known Greg for a long time, from my time down south,” says former Storm assistant ‘Madge’. “He’s more of a senior player now and he’s just enjoying what he’s doing.
“He’s excited about training now. He shows up excited every day and that helps show our younger kids what it takes to be successful at the top level. It affects the whole group because of his focus.”
What else do you need to know if you’re heading to the season opener against Sydney Roosters? That the bunnies beat PNG 38-12 and St George Illawarra 28-10 but lost to Newcastle 18-6 in the pre-season. That Ben Te’o and Nathan Merritt were dropped for disciplinary breaches. That midnight army camps were a feature of their summer.
“Everyone’s doing camps at some stage,” says Maguire. “I experienced it as a player.
“(Mental toughness) is a little bit of the reason for why you do them but it’s also the experiences and the bond formed by what your team goes through.
“Everyone goes through different stages during the pre-season when things are hard. Being able to push through does make you mentally tougher.”
Twelve months ago Souths didn’t have a halfback – but we ask Maguire to name something else they’ve gained in that time.
“The senior playing group is really driving things along with me – that’s something that’s really improved,” he answers, after a few moments’ thought.
“Their expectations are a lot greater, which has been a significant difference.
“The depth in a lot of positions is quite strong. At the end of the day, it’s about how we perform each week. That’s going to be the telling factor this year.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK