The Rabbitohs gradually improved the most important elements of their game over the course of the season.
While the attack from Wayne Bennett’s side was always top class, and the left edge the most dangerous in the competition, it was their defence which seemed to be a problem early on.
Letting in 50 points against the Melbourne Storm and Penrith Panthers mid-season seemed to all but end their run, and while they came within a whisker of winning the premiership, that long-running curse has continued.
Regardless, Bennett’s departure hands the keys over to Jason Demetriou as head coach, and while he has promised to keep things the same, a duo of high-profile departures will make that a difficult proposition for the rookie head coach who has served a long apprenticeship, finding success at reserve grade level and learning from some of the best in the game.
Demetriou’s role in the Rabbitohs for 2022 can’t be overstated, but neither can that of replacements for Adam Reynolds and Dane Gagai, while the losses of Jaydn Su’A and Benji Marshal have barely rated a mention, but are still important.
Their signing list is fairly minimal, and for a club looking to go one step further, you have to wonder who they would steal if it could be anyone in the competition.
Remove all salary caps, all contracts and give the Rabbitohs an open slate - who would they take for the 2022 campaign?
Who would your club steal?
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Current squad for 2022
Jai Arrow, Zane Bijorac, Thomas Burgess, Jed Cartwright, Michael Chee-Kam, Damien Cook, Campbell Graham, Saliva Havili, Jacob Host, Lachlan Ilias, Alex Johnston, Liam Knight, Keaon Koloamatangi, Peter Mamouzelos, Josh Mansour, Steve Marsters, Taane Milne, Latrell Mitchell, Cameron Murray, Mark Nicholls, Jaxson Paulo, Hame Sele, Blake Taaffe, Isaiah Tass, Tevita Tatola, Cody Walker.
Gaps in the Rabbitohs’ top 17
The biggest problems heading into the 2022 season for the Rabbitohs have quite clearly been created by departures of key stars.
The current replacements are in the shape of either Lachlan Illias or Blake Taaffe in the halves, and potentially Taane Milne at centre - there is no argument to be made against both being downgrades, although the excitement of the young guns in the halves will whet the appetite of South Sydney fans.
That being said, Benji Marshall’s departure could also prove critical in terms of finding that steadying hand from the bench who can slot in and help fill positions - Anthony Milford was supposed to be that, but at this stage, the NRL are refusing to register his contract over off-field problems.
It could be argued that the bench utility - think players like Connor Watson, who is moving to the Sydney Roosters, or Harry Grant at the Melbourne Storm - has become the most important role in the game and right now the Rabbitohs don’t have anyone to fill that void.
Across the rest of the team, the left edge - with the exception of Gagai - will be strong as always, while Jaxson Paulo is an exciting young winger and will likely slot onto the right edge outside Campbell Graham.
Thomas Burgess, Tevita Tatola and Mark Nicholls were all outstanding in 2021, but you can’t help but feel the Rabbitohs could still do with an upgrade in the middle third to give them the extra edge - one of those barnstorming options rather than the trio of solid players they currently have to rotate through the number eight and ten jerseys.
Where they don’t struggle is the back row. Cameron Murray is potentially the best lock in the competition, and if not a very close second behind Isaah Yeo, while Jai Arrow and Keaon Koloamatangi are both representative-calibre players.
Note: As much as the Rabbitohs would love to simply steal back Reynolds and Gagai, this isn't the point of the series - we will be only considering players who didn't play for South Sydney in 2021.
Candidates to steal
Option 1: Justin Olam (Melbourne Storm)
Without doubt, Dane Gagai is an enormous loss to the Rabbitohs. Everyone seems to want to talk about Wayne Bennett and Adam Reynolds, but without Gagai, that left edge simply wouldn't have been anywhere near what it ended up being.
Defensively, he is rock-solid and the Knights have picked up a proven winner, but in attack, he almost seemed to pick the right options and it led to him racking up tries and assists, while playing a part in the record-breaking season for Alex Johnston.
There was more than Gagai to the left edge, but the Rabbitohs need to replace him with someone at the top of the game, and Justin Olam is just that.
The Storm centre is a barnstorming hulk of brute force, but more than that, he has added finese to his game over the last 12 months seeing him play a role in tries, score his own and read the game in a far better way than he ever used to be capable of which has improved him defensively.
Option 2: Luke Keary (Sydney Roosters)
As much as the Rabbitohs would love to keep Reynolds, that isn't an option. Neither is Nathan Cleary - there is just a feeling he may not fit in quite as well with the play style given the dominance of Cody Walker on the left edge.
But Luke Keary is a winner if the Rabbitohs could steal a half.
Yes, he will be returning from a season-long injury, but the former Rabbitoh has the talent to make the Rabbitohs, and potentially take them to the next level.
He carries a kicking game which, while not quite on the same level as Reynolds, is still excellent and among the best in the competition, while his ability to take the line on also has to be highlighted.
Giving the Rabbitohs running spark on both sides of the field could end up being the difference-maker in their pursuit of the Panthers and other top teams during 2022.
The last thing they want to do is upset the apple cart by bringing in a wrecking ball.
But, if they can find a wrecking ball who carries the same features and work ethic as their current forwards, then it'll be bingo - and that's exactly what Moeaki Fotuaika is.
He plays big minutes, but never drops the production level which has turned him into one of the game's best forwards and a certain starter for Queensland come State of Origin time.
All Run Metres
Option 4: Dylan Walker (Manly Sea Eagles)
The controlling influence and kicking game Marshall was able to provide will be hard to replace at Redfern, and there are few players who could bring his level of experience to the set up under Demetriou in 2022.
As such, it makes it a difficult proposition to suggest any player could do it, while having the ability to play other positions and put the team first would also be something looked upon nicely.
Defensive solidness is also a key to this position, and while Connor Watson turned himself into the game's best utility during 2022, he isn't what the Rabbitohs would be looking for to replace Marshall within their own system.
Instead, Dylan Walker would be the man.
A former Rabbitoh, he has the running, defence and kicking game to do it all from the bench, and he has found that role suits at Manly over the past 12 months.
He isn't an exact like-for-like replacement to Marshall, but he is about as close as the Rabbitohs will be able to get.
As much as the club would probably like to steal Wayne Bennett back to continue coaching in 2022, they have a more than suitable replacement in Demetriou who has been waiting for his crack at first grade for far too long.
That taken care of, this is really a matter of working out what position they need more than any other.
This comes down to a matter of whether the Rabbitohs would want to upgrade their front-row rotation or keep their left-hand side as strong as possible.
Given the work of Gagai and how crucial he was - not that he gets the wraps he deserves - that makes it the most important position to replace for South Sydney.
They haven't really done that yet, and so it has to be Olam if they could pick any player to steal in the competition.
Next up in this series we take a tumble back down the ladder to check out the St George Illawarra Dragons.