South Sydney Are A Cautionary Tale Of What Happens When A Perennial Contender Starts To Decline

The 2024 South Sydney Rabbitohs are a former, perennial contender who all of a sudden finds themselves out of contention. They are a cautionary tale of what happens to a very good team when they find themselves at the end of a good run of success.

It is something that happens to all good teams….well, except for the Melbourne Storm!

Between 2018 and 2022 South Sydney went on an extraordinary run where they made it to at least the preliminary finals five years in a row. The team even competed in the 2021 NRL Grand Final, losing a close one to a Penrith Panthers team who we now know is one of the greatest teams of all time.

That run of success is nothing to sneer it. Plenty of clubs would love to be able to be one of the NRL’s true contenders for half a decade.

South Sydney built their run of success around a very good, stable halves pairing, a solid forward pack, great dummy half running and players in their outside backs who produced the goods. They were a team of players who were generally around the same age as one another, who grew together as professional Rugby League players, and on their day they seemed unstoppable.

Like all successful teams, the salary cap had it say. Souths were far better than most clubs at keeping the core of their side together, but eventually even they couldn’t stop the tide turning.

The loss of Adam Reynolds was the first big domino to fall. It was a calculated risk. Reynolds, who had been injury prone for a while at this point, was going to command big money, and Souths felt they could continue their run of success with a younger halfback earning a fraction of the money it would take to retrain Reynolds.

When you consider that the club made the preliminary finals the year after Reynolds left, you could very easily argue that they made the right decision. The problem is, as young Lachlan Ilias stepped into the side to start his first grade career, some of those around him were starting to look towards the twilight of their careers.

South Sydneys forward pack, which was never one of its strength, but who got the job done, started to get worse. Damien Cook, who was still one of the best hookers in the game, lost a bit of an edge to his running game as he hit his 30’s. Cody Walker struggled to gel with his younger half in Ilias. Latrell Mitchell started to come in and out of the lineup because of injury and suspension.

It culminated in a very disappointing 2023 season in which South Sydney missed the finals series for the first time since 2017.

As a result Souths looked to re-tool, and their plan to do this was to spend big money on Jack Wighton to play in the centres for the club in 2024.

So here we are in 2024, and it looks bad. Ilias got dropped from first grade after just two games. Souths have started their season with three losses and no wins.

Here is something I want you to consider though…Cody Walker is 34. Damien Cook is 32. Jack Wighton is 31. Thomas Burgess is 31. South Sydney have tried to re-tool their former contender on the run, but as key players get older the margin for error becomes a lot thinner.

So when Latrell Mitchell isn’t playing his best footy, Jai Arrow is struggling with injuries, Campbell Graham has yet to play a game and Lachlan Ilias gets dropped out of the lineup, you’re relying on a lot of veteran players to go above and beyond to keep the team winning games.

At some point, they just don’t have it in them like they use to do. Father Time beats everyone.

Even Clive Churchill had to retire.

I’m not saying its time for South Sydney to send all of their veteran players off into the sunset, but it is clear the direction of the club moving forward needs to be more along the lines of a rebuild, rather than just re-tooling.

Lachlan Ilias needs to be given the keys to run the team. To be the playmaker in charge. The one everything runs off of. He is capable of that. We have seen it.

The forward pack needs a rethink. As other clubs look for more mobile back rowers who can get through a heap of work, South forward pack looks a little outdated. Their lack of mobility kills them in defence, and the forwards who once did enough to get the job done are now a liability.

Then there is the question about what to do with Latrell Mitchell. On his day, when he is in form and playing his best, no player in the game can completely dominate the sport and make his team impossible to beat like Latrell Mitchell can. No one!

The problem is, those performances are becoming more and more rare. As good as Latrell is, it feels like the injuries he has suffered in recent years may have cut down on the fine margin he walked as being better as a fullback than he was in the centres.

Most people don’t realise how big Latrell Mitchell is, for a player his size to keep on top of his cardio is difficult. Look around the league at the build and size of every other fullback. No one is built like Mitchell. Mitchell is the size of a big forward, he is an extremely powerful ball runner, and he is playing a position that is all about cardio. Maybe at this point of his career its time to move Mitchell back into the centres, where he plays so well for New South Wales and Australia, and hope that by putting fewer kilometres into his legs and having to do a little less in attack will help cut down on his injury issues.

Which brings us to Jack Wighton…

I never understood the move to sign Wighton to a big deal at Souths. I felt that salary cap money would have been better spent in other areas of the team. Wighton is the type of swing for the fences I could understand a contender making in the right situation to try and gain an edge.

He wasn’t the right signing for South Sydney.

Souths need a change of direction, and that will be painful. It will take a strong coach, and a stronger front office, to navigate the issues that need to be addressed.

For Souths to get better, they might have to get a little worse in the short term. Bringing juniors through, letting go of some players who have served them well, learning lessons through losses, and not looking to win this year, but looking to be a contender once again a couple of years from now.

Souths have had a really good run, but there’s no turning back the clock. The future for South Sydney needs to start now, because the last thing you want to see is South Sydney leave it too late and bottom out in the league as we have seen other clubs do in recent years.

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