PHIL GOULD March 31, 2013
Prime British beef: Souths giant Sam Burgess continues a long list of English forwards who have made their mark on the Australian competition. Photo: Anthony Johnson
The modern-day version of the South Sydney Rabbitohs has finally come of age as a football team.
At the start of this season I selected Souths as my No.1 tip to challenge for the title. Making that selection certainly doesn’t mean much. But what’s more important is after the first four rounds, I have absolutely no reason to change my mind. In fact, as a result of this win on Good Friday, I’m even more confident now than I was back in February.
This hard-fought victory against Canterbury in front of more than 51,000 fans at ANZ Stadium convinced me of a few things. We all suspected Souths were getting very close to having the coach and the players to win a premiership. Friday taught us Souths now have the game and the temperament to get the job done. Sure they look like the Melbourne Storm in the way they go about their work. But tell me why that’s not a good thing?
They are a team that will no longer beat themselves. You will have to beat Souths; they won’t contribute to their own demise.
The first 15 minutes of Friday’s match had me leaning further forward in my seat as each minute ticked by. It was gripping finals-style football. Run for run, tackle for tackle, set for set, kick for kick; these two teams went at each other. No errors, no missed tackles, no errant kicks, no stoppages in play. Each team was waiting for the other to crack.
I remember thinking to myself this is one examination the Rabbitohs just have to pass. If they buckled in the face of this determined Bulldogs’ confrontation, their credentials as genuine premiership prospects would’ve been dented. Sure it’s only round four and we have such a long way to go; but sometimes you just need to pass one of these tests early in the year to prove to yourself your team has what it takes to stare down pain, fatigue and the most determined of oppositions.
When this opening gambit from both sides was completed, the Bulldogs had been first to score and held the slight advantage. I have no doubt in previous years that would’ve been the end for South Sydney. It would’ve been too hard, they would start to panic, they would self-destruct, and they would have a list of excuses at full-time to explain away the loss.
It would appear those days are gone. This Souths team would not be denied and immediately came roaring back. They soon levelled up, then took the lead, and eventually won the match running away. The final score showed only a five-point winning margin, however, I though their superiority was far greater.
This is a performance these Souths players can draw upon later in the season when they are playing in games for higher stakes. Big is good; and this is a big, big football team. The forward pack has size, mobility and grunt. Unheralded players such as Ben Lowe, Chris McQueen and David Tyrell diligently go about their work. Ben Te’o has been a wonderful acquisition for the side. Roy Asotasi, Mick Crocker and Jeff Lima give the side that hard-nosed experience all teams crave. Issac Luke and Nathan Peats are both tremendous out of dummy-half. Both are playing with more thought and composure in their game.
And then we have the Burgess boys. Wow! I will deal with George Burgess first. This boy is a giant. He has a frame on which you could build a block of home units. He has great speed for a big man, which gives him explosive power over the advantage line and into the teeth of the opposition forward pack.
He often doubles up with two runs in the same set of six to get his team moving forward. The 20-year-old plays with a confidence and fervour that belies his tender years. His two barge-over tries this year have sparked rapturous celebrations from teammates, indicating he is extremely popular with his peers. This bloke is a sensation. If his other brothers are half as good as this bloke then the game won’t be fair when they all come together in the same team. They will be unstoppable.
Now let’s get to big brother, Sam Burgess.
Years ago Nathan Brown called me from England to say he had just seen the best young forward he had ever laid eyes on. His name was Sam Burgess. We have seen a lot of great English forwards come to this country over the years and adapt very well to the Australian conditions and game.
How many can you name? I can go back to the likes of Dick Huddart, Cliff Watson, Brian Lockwood, Jim Mills, Steve Norton, Doug Laughton, Merv Hicks, Phil Lowe, Bill Ashurst, Mike Stephenson, Kevin Ward, Gareth Ellis, Adrian Morley; the best I saw was the great Malcolm Reilly. You might be able to remember others.
This bloke Sam Burgess might just prove himself to be the best of all time. He is an 80-minute powerhouse. He was mighty on Friday. As the forward battle raged and everyone was giving as good as they got, Burgess stood head and shoulders above the rest. His charges on the edges of the field are relentless. The further the game goes, the more damaging he seems to become. He just wears them down.
He has a tremendous constitution for work. He doesn’t play like your normal front-rower.
Let me point you to a moment just before the half-time siren where the Bulldogs were attacking the South Sydney line. The Dogs move the ball to the left on a long-side shift with several of those decoy runners charging at the line. At a critical point, one of these decoy runners makes eyes for Sam Burgess and engages him. Now most players would probably allow the decoy to hit them and fall down to the ground to get a penalty. Others would stand their ground in a show of strength just to remind their opponent they are no easy touch.
Burgess did neither. Once he knew the man he was marking wasn’t getting the ball, he released himself, covered his teammates to the outside and followed the play. When the Dogs then grubber-kicked into the in-goal area desperately searching for the kick-and-chase try, who was there to win the race to the ball and knock it dead, defusing any danger?
That’s a player right there.
He is a sensation and so important to the personality and character of this South Sydney group. He reminds me a bit of Gorden Tallis in the way he wills things to happen for his team. He believes he can make good things happen. And then we get to the backs.
Nathan Merritt. How has this bloke never played Origin football? What a pro. Dylan Farrell, Bryson Goodwin and Andrew Everingham are very competent in their roles and all growing in confidence as this team starts to excel.
Greg Inglis. Have we ever seen such a dynamic athlete in the game of rugby league? He is so graceful in full flight, so skilful, so fast; but with such raw power. His selective passing game in the fullback role has been brilliant.
The biggest five-eighth in history, John Sutton, has finally established himself as a serious footballer. Always the epitome of potential, Sutton is now the accomplished performer. The mixture he has in his game is highly impressive. His decision-making has improved out of sight. I am enjoying the fact this fellow has finally realised what we all saw in him as a youngster. I didn’t know if he would get there – but Sutton has now arrived.
Who does that leave? Oh yeah, the halfback. This Adam Reynolds kid is getting better by the week. He complements this team perfectly. He doesn’t overplay his hand. He just does his job and keeps things bubbling along. He supports the work of his teammates, ever-ready to capitalise on their creativity. Then when needed, he produces his brilliant kicking game that can produce points, or simply force the line drop-out to maintain the pressure on the opponents.
Souths fans are pushing hard for Reynolds to be the next NSW No.7. The murmur has now become a roar as a groundswell of support comes for this lad. This is a super-football team. Well-balanced, these boys are playing as a unit, and as Friday showed, they have become far more resilient under pressure.
Personally, I think this is the best South Sydney football team I have ever seen. I’m sure old-timers will argue the point. But this is a team that could well carry the trophy on a victory lap in October.
Well done South Sydney fans. Enjoy the ride.