Most of the South Sydney teams of the past 20 years would have found a way to butcher yesterday’s game against Penrith.
Up 12-0 midway through the first half, only to be pulled back to level by a couple of opposition tries towards the end of it, they would have been thrown off-course. The game plan would have been discarded as they went for shortcuts to try to get back on top. But not this Souths team. This Souths team is different.
New coach Michael Maguire arrived at the club and started calling a tune the players liked the sound of. The result is that the Rabbitohs are real. They don’t have to wait until next year to be a force – the way this competition is, because of the parity that comes with the salary cap, they are genuine contenders now.
You sense that they know that, but you won’t get them to say it so boldly. It’s not the Maguire way and the players are clearly an extension of him. His idea is that you keep working hard, you don’t get ahead of yourself and if you keep ticking the boxes you stay in the team. If you don’t, you lose your spot and you get the feeling it wouldn’t matter who that player was.
Souths ended up back in front of the Panthers by half-time because of a 40th-minute penalty goal from halfback Adam Reynolds that made it 14-12, but that was only a minor development. What was going to matter was how they responded to their lack of conviction in defence towards the end of that first term.
Penrith are struggling so much, with so many players out on State of Origin commitments and injuries, that the Rabbitohs could have gone back out not quite where they should have been in their minds and still won. After all, they have got some genuine firepower even without Queensland fullback Greg Inglis. But the score would have ended up something like 28-20, or 32-24. A win, but not one to burst with pride about.
Instead, the Rabbitohs shut the Panthers out after the break, winning the second half 24-0 to put an exclamation mark on the performance. Dave Taylor got most of the plaudits for bouncing back from being dumped by Queensland and taking it out on Penrith with a virtuoso display of big-man attack, but this was a team effort.
Maguire had challenged the players at half-time to get their defence back to where it should be – where it had been up until Penrith scored their first try, in the 30th minute – and they had accepted it. Job well done.
When it was suggested to Maguire that many past Souths teams wouldn’t have responded to the Penrith fightback as well as yesterday’s team, he said: ”We basically had a clean sheet when I got here and we started from there.
”It’s a credit to the players, they’ve bought into everything that we’re doing and they’re really, really hungry as a group. It’s really enjoyable to be able to work with a bunch of boys who work as hard as they are. If they keep doing that week to week, hopefully we get the opportunities when the business end comes around.”
That is as close as you’ll get to anyone at Souths making big predictions. Maguire has them well schooled, but, more to the point, they clearly like being well schooled. They react well to how he lays out the task for them, one week at a time.
A slight grin appeared on Maguire’s face when Souths captain Michael Crocker was asked whether it was hard to keep a lid on the excitement. The Rabbitohs are sixth after yesterday’s win – good times, rather than cartwheels time. Of course, Crocker quickly shut down any suggestion Souths might start yahooing.
”It’s not very hard at all,” he said. ”We’re still in a position because the competition is so close, where we’re only one loss from slipping back down to eighth or ninth spot. So we need to keep growing in confidence and building momentum going into the back end of the season.”
When they might well be a team to watch out for.
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