2022 review: South Sydney Rabbitohs

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With Adam Reynolds on the move and Wayne Bennett out of the picture, this was supposed to be the year that the South Sydney Rabbitohs took a step backwards.

Ultimately though, it would be a step backwards to later take a step forwards, with rookie halfback Lachlan Ilias given a full year to adjust to the weekly rigours of first-grade football.

Of course, the spotlight was always going to be on Ilias regardless of how South Sydney performed given the quality of halfback he was replacing.

But with lower expectations, at least seemingly there would be more time and space for him to develop without the added pressure of delivering a premiership.

It looked like that would be the case early in the season, although a sudden revival and in-form Latrell Mitchell threatened to see South Sydney go one better when it was least expected.

Ultimately the Rabbitohs would fall one game short, outclassed against by the Panthers when it mattered most.

Yet, in a year that initially promised to be little but part of long-term vision at Redfern, South Sydney emerged as late-season surprise packets, giving hope there could be a title for the taking in 2023.

Turning point

Trailing 32-0 at halftime against the inconsistent Dragons, it did not look like the Rabbitohs could slump much lower.

And then cameras followed as first-year halfback Ilias was taken out of the game and left on the bench in what coach Jason Demetriou described as a learning experience for the young playmaker.

On the surface, it looked just as much like he was being made into an easy scapegoat for a string of poor performances.

You never know what is happening behind closed doors though and after an honest chat with the 22-year-old, Ilias only grew in confidence and shoulder greater playmaking responsibility.

The team as a whole lifted its standards, winning six of its next eight games and that strong run of form coincided with the return of fullback Latrell Mitchell.

Mitchell went on to record 12 try assists, 15 linebreak assists, 36 tackle busts, eight linebreaks and four tries in just seven games and all while returning from a hamstring injury.

Both he and the Rabbitohs carried that momentum all the way to the third week of the finals before running into a determined Panthers side that just proved too good yet again.

What worked

While South Sydney's halves drifted in and out of form, most weeks they could always rely on a strong platform up front to give them plenty to work with.

Even without Reynolds or Bennett, the Rabbitohs entered the 2023 season with a star-studded forward pack headlined by lock Cameron Murray.

Murray's quick play-the-balls and short passing threat once again made him one of the game's biggest threats through the middle, thereby opening up even more space on the edges.

It was not just Murray though, with several other Rabbitohs forwards enjoying career-best years.

Tom Burgess (average 129 running metres) and Tevita Tatola (121 metres) both consistently produced while Keaon Koloamatangi (118 metres, two tackle busts) was a handful on the edge.

South Sydney's mid-season revival also coincided with Burgess, Tatola and Koloamatangi all increasing their involvement too.

Burgess went from averaging 118 metres per game between Rounds 1 and 15 to 161 from then onwards while Koloamatangi bumped up his average metres by 30 and Tatola by nearly 70.

What didn't work

The new-look halves pairing was always going to be a work-in-progress in 2023 but at times that had as much to do with five-eighth Cody Walker as it did Ilias.

As a first-year halfback Ilias deserved leeway when it came to any potential holes in his game, be it the accuracy of his long-range kicking or ability to command the ball in the big moments.

For Walker though, as the far more experienced on the two Ilias needed him at times to be the calming influence that Reynolds was for him during his time at South Sydney.

Of course, that is not Walker's game, with the crafty five-eighth better suited to chiming in and out of games in a similar fashion to Penrith's Jarome Luai.

It meant that at times the Rabbitohs lacked direction and leadership in attack, with Mitchell and Damien Cook also not always the type of player to calm things down when errors pile up.

Rather, those two are more likely to push the pass in an attempt to desperate spark something in attack.

Demetriou quickly started to sound like a broken record as he continued to harp on about South Sydney's poor completion rate and ultimately it would time and time again prove its undoing.

2022 results

RndDateDayOppositionVenueCrowdRank
1Mar 11thFri 8:05pmABrisbaneL4-11Suncorp32,0028th
2Mar 17thThu 8:05pmAMelbourneL14-15AAMI Park13,26916th
3Mar 25thFri 8:00pmHSydneyW28-16Accor18,24510th
4Apr 1stFri 8:00pmAPenrithL12-26BlueBet20,52115th
5Apr 9thSat 5:30pmHSt Geo IllaW24-12Accor11,3329th
6Apr 15thFri 4:00pmHCanterburyW36-16Accor30,1949th
7Apr 23rdSat 7:30pmAWests TigersL22-23CommBank14,2519th
8Apr 29thFri 8:00pmH NManlyW40-22Gosford17,2846th
9May 5thThu 7:50pmHBrisbaneL12-32Accor9,24211th
10May 14thSat 3:00pmA NWarriorsW32-30Suncorp46,4548th
11May 22ndSun 2:00pmH NCanberraL12-32Apex Oval11,1248th
12May 28thSat 5:30pmHWests TigersW44-18Accor13,5858th
14Jun 11thSat 3:00pmAGold CoastW30-16CBUS14,2907th
15Jun 16thThu 7:50pm
ASt Geo IllaL12-32WIN11,2578th
16Jul 2ndSat 7:35pmHParramattaW30-12Accor10,1027th
17Jul 8thFri 7:55pmANewcastleW40-28McD. Jones18,6217th
18Jul 17thSun 6:15pmACanterburyW36-28Accor19,1267th
19Jul 23rdSat 7:35pmHMelbourneW24-12Accor11,2176th
20Jul 30thSat 5:30pmACronullaL20-21Pointsbet11,4927th
21Aug 6thSat 3:00pmH NWarriorsW48-10Sun. Coast8,9116th
22Aug 12thFri 7:55pmAParramattaW26-0CommBank22,9585th
23Aug 18thThu 7:50pmHPenrithL22-26Accor15,2087th
24Aug 27thSat 7:35pmHNorth QldW20-10Accor15,2647th
25Sep 2ndFri 7:55pmASydneyL16-26Allianz41,9067th
EFSep 11thSun 4:05pmASydneyW30-14Allianz39,4987th
SFSep 17thSat 8:00pmA NCronullaW38-12Allianz39,7337th
PFSep 24thSat 7:50pmA NPenrithL12-32Accor50,0357th

Best players

The likes of Mitchell and Murray are the obvious answers here, with both pivotal to South Sydney's success but centre Campbell Graham was an underrated performer who deserves plenty of praise too.

Graham is deceptively strong and had a habit for finding his way to the line even if defenders were around him, finishing with a solid five tries to his name.

It was Graham's work in defence in particular though that was undervalued for much of the season, with the 23-year-old highly physical in his contact and smart with his decision-making under pressure.

Winger Alex Johnston also has to rate a mention here, shattering records as he finished the season with 30 tries.

With it, Johnston became the first player in premiership history to score 30 tries in two separate seasons, having done so in back-to-back seasons after scoring 30 in 2021.

Rookies

He has already been discussed already but you have to start here with Ilias, who did exceptionally well given the circumstances of his rookie year.

It is already hard enough to be a halfback in the NRL, let alone the one replacing a club legend but Ilias did well to stick to his own game and not fall into the trap of trying to be the new Reynolds.

Not everything went to plan but that is to be expected in your first year in the top grade and yet Ilias still finished the year with 11 try assists, 11 linebreak assists, 15 forced dropouts and four tries while averaging 225 kicking metres.

The 22-year-old's kicking game will only continue to develop, as will his leadership and presence in the squad as he grows more comfortable calling the shots.

Ilias was rewarded for his fine season with the club's John Sattler Rookie of the Year awarded and also extended until the end of the 2025 season.

Outside of Ilias, Davvy Moale was the other rookie to have a fairly consistent in the NRL, having made two first-grade appearances back in 2021.

Moale added 12 more NRL games to his name this year, averaging 58 metres from six runs as a high-impact player off the bench.

While the 19-year-old had limited game time, averaging around 20 minutes off the pine, that suited his style anyway as a potential point of difference to bring on against tired forwards.

2022 player stats

PlayerAgeAppTGFGPtsBinOff
ARROW, Jai27262--8--
BURGESS, Thomas30212--811
CARTWRIGHT, Jed255------
CHEE-KAM, Michael306------
COOK, Damien31238--32--
FIFITA, Daniel235------
GRAHAM, Campbell23205--20--
HAVILI, Siliva29231--4--
HAWKINS, Dean231------
HOST, Jacob258------
ILIAS, Lachlan22265--20--
JOHNSTON, Alex272530--120--
KENNAR, Richard2724--16--
KNIGHT, Liam278------
KOLOAMATANGI, Keaon24277--28--
MAMOUZELOS, Peter2121--4--
MANSOUR, Josh3252--8--
MILNE, Taane272210--4031
MITCHELL, Latrell251776111521-
MITCHELL, Shaq263------
MOALE, Davvy1912------
MURRAY, Cameron24234--16--
NICHOLLS, Mark32181--4--
NIKORIMA, Kodi2815-10-201-
PAULO, Jaxson22186--24--
PEOPLES, Trent242------
SELE, Hame2514------
TAAFFE, Blake2310230-68--
TASS, Isaiah23163--12--
TATOLA, Tevita25264--161-
THOMPSON, Izaac2522--8--
WALKER, Cody322714--56--
32 players26.3627120101168472

Looking ahead

The Rabbitohs were not supposed to be contending for a title this year but went within one game of another grand final appearance.

With a relatively settled squad next season there is nothing to suggest South Sydney won't be there again trying to win its first title since 2014.

2023 Best 17

at time of writing

1. Latrell Mitchell
2. Alex Johnston
3. Isaiah Tass
4. Campbell Graham
5. Izaac Thompson
6. Cody Walker
7. Lachlan Ilias
8. Tevita Tatola
9. Damien Cook
10. Hame Sele
11. Keaon Koloamatangi
12. Jai Arrow
13. Cameron Murray

14. Siliva Havili
15. Tom Burgess
16. Davvy Moale
17. Jacob Host