With the Finals over and the November 1 contract deadline passed, we can officially declare the NRL’s silly season open.
Into the morass of gossip and conjecture, we will bring sanity, with the relaunch of Smart Signings, our dissection of where clubs are weak, what they need to improve and where they might find it. Expect stats, profiles and insights, with options that are available and realistic. Don’t expect rumours.
Here’s the general narrative of South Sydney’s 2023 season.
They had a tough draw to start, but overcame it to top the table, only for a combination of Origin, injuries and internal strife to spectacularly blow up their Premiership hopes, ending with them missing the finals entirely.
Does that cover everything? Pretty much. The weighting might be a little different, and a smart analysis would hold that their infighting was probably overrated while their Origin issues were largely underplayed.
That’s as much a function of the media that reports on rugby league as it is anything that Souths did: soap opera stories are undeniably interesting and pointing the finger at Origin, the game’s biggest cash cow, isn’t in anyone’s interest.
At the end of the year, however, the Bunnies missed out by one single win, and in the Origin period, they lost to the Bulldogs and Dragons, both of whom were rubbish, with half a team out.
None of Latrell Mitchell, Cody Walker or Cameron Murray – aka their three most important players – played in either game, and given how close they were even with half of their NSW Cup side, it’s hard to believe that they wouldn’t have won with even one of that trio in.
It’s all fish and chip paper now and they aren’t the only side that had players out – Parramatta were also dudded – but when assessing a season that ultimately fell on one win, it can’t be ignored.
Going into 2023, Jason Demetriou might look at a few other structural issues, however. Their ability to play both sides of the field, the aspect of their game that was strongest in the early part of the year, dissipated.
Opposition analysts got their teeth into the big left-edge shape, with more and more sides choosing not to engage and simply to let the move run to Alex Johnston on the edge.
When your central gambit is to play to points and then move into your highly-effective pattern play, it doesn’t help if its effectiveness falls off a cliff. For the second year running, too, we saw how ineffective it can be when Latrell isn’t there, too, and he wasn’t for a third of the season.
The signing of Jack Wighton might go a long way to restoring that potency. He’s one of the game’s elite ball-runners and, if he features as expected at left centre, teams won’t be able to sit off as he’ll run straight through them.
If Demetriou can coach humility into Wighton and get him functioning within that pattern, it can be lethal. If his arrival makes Isaiah Tass into a winger, too, then that might be a winner and solve a long-standing problem in backline metres.
Tass’ move could be the important part, because yardage is where this team fell down. They ended up 8th for run metres, not ideal for a team that aspires to be at the very top, and crucially, their middles were not always able to effectively carry that burden.
It’s not that they were bad, more that they were rarely all available. They have five forwards who averaged over 100m per game, but only one, Tom Burgess, who topped 2000m for the season, because so many spent time out.
Tom Burgess missed more than a month in the middle and all of the end, Tevita Tatola missed lots of the start and then again the end, Jai Arrow was out start and middle.
Keaon Koloamatangi, Davvy Moale and Shaq Mitchell were all notable long-term absentees, too and the only consistent force in their pack, Hame Sele, has now left for the Dragons.
This is a central problem with the way that Souths play football. Their attacking, expansive style is empowered by wins in the forwards, but their forwards were never on the field.
When even three of Burgess, Tatola, Sele and Arrow were on the field, they were great, but that only happened infrequently.
The recruitment hasn’t done much to square this circle either. They found Tallis Duncan late in the year as a mini-Cameron Murray, so you’d expect him to get more game time, and Sean Keppie is in as Sele’s replacement, which on form to date is a downgrade.
If we assume that it’s Burgess and Tatola to start with Arrow and Koloamatangi alongside Murray in the back row, then you’re looking at Davvy Moale, Daniel Suluka-Fifita, Keppie and Shaq doing the rotation.
It’s not terrible, but it’s hardly awe-inspiring either. Souths aim to play at the very top of the comp, but they’re entering into the Parramatta territory in which teams will be able to sit out the big guns and pounce when they are knackered.
Moreover, where the Bunnies are best in the middle is winning the floor, with Burgess and Tatola exceptional at hitting high on tacklers then falling into the gap beneath them. What they need is someone who can play off the bench, bring aggression and, realistically, be cheap.
So who looks like that? If we roll through the play the ball speed data, there’s some interesting options out there.
One name that flies out is Martin Taupau. He signed a one-year extension at the Broncos in April, but has been out of favour towards the end of the year and dominates for quick rucks, plus all the added benefits of having one of the game’s most respected veterans around the group.
If they were truly interested in chaos, one of the best body types and play the balls just came on the market in Sam Kasiano.
Still only 33, he was good enough for 24 games for Warrington last year but is reportedly close to the door as new coach Sam Burgess looks to clean house. 2023 wasn’t his best career year, but as stopgap cheapie, it would be a hell of a lot of fun.
If an interim was found for 2024, then Souths suddenly become a huge player in the market for Addin Fonua-Blake in 2025. He was their local junior, coming through at Mascot Jets, and that homecoming could be very easy to sell.
Beyond veterans, there’s an obvious place to look for this kind of forward, as Parra have stockpiled them.
Jirah Momoisea’s skillset more than fits the brief and he is in the last year of his contract, as is Ofahiki Ogden, who was third in the entire comp for metres per run last year with over 75% of his carries breaching the 8m benchmark for middle forward.
All four of these are guys they could likely get right now, too, if the will was there.
Alternatively, let’s imagine a world where Tom Burgess is that forward, given his age and likely departure to the Super League at the end of the year.
That opens a place for a more workhorse kind of middle, and it’s possible that Arrow is actually that person right now, given he barely featured as a backrower in 2023 due to injuries elsewhere and proved that he can more than do a job in what you might consider the ‘Jake Trbojevic’ role.
His full season stats are pretty noisy given positional and bench movements, but when Souths were good from Rounds 7 to 12, he hit 33 tackles or more in all but one game, which would put him right, right up there with the best defensive middles. Only Jurbo, Cam McInnes and Max King are batting in that area.
If Arrow can sustain a role as an elite shock absorber, it gives Demetriou scope to rotate his strike middles more effectively and, potentially, find a brilliant backrower to take space.
Last year saw Koloamatangi lock down the right edge, but the left was rotated between Michael Chee-Kam and Jacob Host, the first of whom is off at the end of the year and the second who has only ever locked down a first grade spot last year after many years of trying.
Host extended to the end of 2025 and the club also have Ben Lovett as a backup, but it is certainly a place to upgrade. Unless Host suddenly goes on a tear, his level is depth.
The good news is that there are plenty, plenty of options for strike backrowers on the November 1 list.
Angus Crichton is absolutely up for grabs – maybe even for this year given the Roosters have been trying to shop him to rugby union – and would be a huge return for Souths if they can find cap and want someone for 2024.
His level is far, far beyond what his 2023 looked like and the Bunnies will back themselves to get him back to where he once was. They could even end up with their nearest and dearest paying a slice of his salary, too, just to get the bulk of his money off the books.
Speaking of returns, Jaydn Su’A left Souths in 2021 as a Queensland player but hasn’t got close to that since and is available for a chat right now.
The Dragons backrower destroys both Host and Chee-Kam in every department statistically and that was achieved in a bad side. Imagine if he got more ball and attention on that Bunnies left edge.
In terms of pure attacking value, Sitili Tupouniua is an option who likely will be squeezed out at the Roosters and has proven value if he can stay on the field, while Coen Hess also outrates the two incumbents for key attacking metrics, while also being far more secure defensively.
Souths find themselves in an interesting position with their recruitment, because last year they didn’t add anyone at all and got worse – contrary to expectations – but might well feel like they copped all the bad luck they could handle in the process.
For 2024, they’ve added a marquee player in a position they didn’t really need, but were in no place to turn down once the opportunity arose.
As a result, the Bunnies do find themselves in an interesting salary cap position where they have a pretty clear first 13 – backrower aside – and know who two of their bench will be, but then can’t really work out where the rest will fit in.
That could either be great, if Moale, Duncan or Suluka-Fifita kicks on, or look like a terrible piece of roster management, especially if Latrell, Murray or any of their forwards get injured again.
No team can cover every base. Souths will hope that they have done their best job at putting cash where it needs to be to make a Premiership charge possible.