There are plenty of big questions for the South Sydney Rabbitohs to answer in 2017 – here are my ten.
1. Who will play at no. 9?
A couple of months ago, one of the biggest questions for the Rabbitohs would have been the role of Robbie Farah.
After last weekend’s Charity Shield, however, it’s clear that he already has a profile within the team.
In the first couple of minutes, he made his most emphatic gesture for the cardinal and myrtle yet, barking out a formation to the rest of his teammates moments before putting down his first try for Souths.
Placed alongside Damien Cook’s spectacular banana kick to Braidon Burns in the second stanza, it’s hard to know who Michael Maguire should pick for Round 1 against the Tigers.
Farah has longevity; Cook has freshness.
Cook has spent more time with the Bunnies, but Farah has a history with the Tigers that might prove critical in that opening bout.
It may be that Madge decides to rotate them for the first couple of rounds and take it from there.
2. Will they maintain momentum?
Last season the Bunnies got off to a cracking start with a 42-win over the Roosters at Allianz Stadium, a 48-6 win over the Knights at ANZ Stadium and an 8-6 win over the Dragons at the SCG.
Granted, beating Newcastle wasn’t much of an achievement in 2016.
Still, the Bunnies seemed on the verge of recapturing their 2014 form in those first few weeks.
Following their 42-12 loss to the Bulldogs at ANZ, however, they failed to really recover their momentum.
From then on, they only had two consecutive wins – against the Eels and Dragons in Rounds 10 and 11, and against the Warriors, Sharks, Knights and Bulldogs in the final four weeks of the regular season.
Bookended by strong opening and closing acts, they could barely put a victory together in the meantime.
Worse, still, was a losing streak stretching from Round 13, when they played against the Titans at nib Stadium, to Round 22, when they played against the Storm at AAMI.
Maintaining consistency and focus will have to be a consideration for Madge this season.
3. Will they manage to make halves magic?
By all accounts, 2016 should have been the year that the Souths’ halves came into their own.
For the first time, Adam Reynolds was chosen for Origin, proof that he was ready to make his name in the upper echelon of halfbacks.
Yet between Reyno’s broken jaw and Keary’s hamstring issues, their trademark synergy never got a chance to consistently shine, let alone to reach the new level so many fans were expecting.
With Keary’s fractious relationship with the club reaching fever pitch, it was hard to feel his heart was fully in it anymore, especially once he signed with the Roosters in June.
While Cody Walker got a few opportunities to show what he could do on the field he never properly got a chance to sync with Reynolds either.
If Sunday’s match is anything to go by, the presence of Farah could be a galvanising factor in giving Reynolds and Walker more space to play.
Farah’s willingness to run the ball could work wonders for the young five-eighth, who can accelerate well over short distances but struggles to gain speed at long range.
4. Will they make the metres?
From the hype at the beginning of 2016 you’d think that Souths had one of the most prestigious forward packs in the business.
Yet the return of Sam Burgess from Bath Rugby overshadowed the departure of a veritable stable of big boppers.
With Ben Lowe retiring, Glenn Stewart heading to Catalans Dragons, and Tim Grant and Chris McQueen heading to the Tigers and Titans respectively, the Bunnies found themselves devoid of some of their former depth in the front line.
Accordingly they found it difficult to make up the metres over the year, third lowest only to the Tigers and the Knights.
A particularly bad season for injuries didn’t help. Nor did the failure of the Burgess brothers to rediscover their 2014 mojo.
Sure, Slammin’ Sam may have clocked up the third highest runs after Andrew Fifita and James Graham.
But the brothers just didn’t feel like a solid unit in the way that they did in 2014.
5. Will Greg Inglis be zero or hero?
Actually, the better question is whether Greg Inglis will be mainly zero or mainly hero.
No player of his quality is more mercurial. No player is more unpredictable.
Who could forget his field goal brain snap against the Dragons in Round 3?
To some extent, guiding the fate of Souths means guiding the fate of GI.
We all know that representative clashes tend to galvanise him to achieve his best.
Nobody watching his mad dash down the field during Indigenous-All Stars would ever believe this guy had off days.
Similarly, Origin seems to bring out the best in him.
Then again, maybe it’s not so much playing at a representative level as playing for a winning side.
In both a Maroons and Indigenous jersey, Inglis is brilliant at building upon the momentum of sustained victories, or sustained performances.
It’s no coincidence that he came into his own in the second half of Indigenous-All Stars, running the ball at just the right time to take advantage of – and consolidate – the energy peaking through the team.
Nor is it a coincidence that some of his finest moments for the Bunnies were in the back end of 2014.
When a team achieves a certain potential, Inglis has a unique ability to make that potential feel present, urgent and achievable.
The question is whether the Bunnies will reach the point where he can display that.
6. Where will Greg Inglis play?
The related question, of course, is what position GI will take up.
He’s been slated to return at fullback, but is that really the right move?
His knee has got better, but you can still tell that it niggles him.
Plus the speed of his kick chase sometimes leaves a bit to desire.
Tim Simona’s spectacular coaching try in the recent Rabbitohs-Tigers trial made that clear.
All in all, it’d be hard to argue that Inglis’ performance at No.1 in 2016 rivalled Cody Walker – or Cody Walker’s potential.
Yet GI also had some struggles in the halves as well.
For me, it’s actually not about the position Inglis plays. In either role, he can be brilliant.
His unpredictability seems to have more to do with his own unique footy personality than where he is on the field.
Perhaps the more pertinent question is – should Walker be at No.1 or in the halves?
In both positions, he could play a much more critical role in shaping the Bunnies’ future than Inglis.
The Charity Shield was also a good reminder that Alex Johnston has pretty safe hands at fullback as well.
Between the three of them, it may be a matter of simply experimenting and going with what works from week to week.
7. Will they keep up the defence?
Over the course of 2016, the Bunnies put in a particularly strong tackling game, the fifth-best across the NRL as a whole.
Their defence was therefore better than their losing streak would suggest.
In fact, few other teams in the competition were so unlucky when it came to near misses in 2016.
In five of their losses – to the Dragons in Round 3, the Sea Eagles in Round 5, the Titans in Round 13, the Panthers in Round 16 and the Storm in Round 22 – the Rabbitohs lost by four points or less.
Their golden point loss to the Storm was a particularly agonising match, although it was probably the wake-up call the team needed to rebuild their finals momentum.
The Bunnies’ backline, in particular, will need to ensure that their defence carries through right to those final minutes of the game, with the slew of new signings making it clear that Madge wants to build even more depth in this area.
8. How will they handle the Cowboys?
This might seem like a bit of a random question. But I’m curious about how Souths will tackle North Queensland this season.
No other team quite managed to debilitate Souths like the Cowboys in 2016, who beat them 44-8 in Round 7 and 20-0 in Round 17.
While there were other agonising results for the Bunnies – the one-point loss to the Titans was a heartbreaker – the Cows effectively bookended their losing streak.
Plus North Queensland were the only team that managed to prevent them scoring a single point.
I’ve tried to think about why that might be the case.
Perhaps the most obvious explanation is the correct one – in both cases, North Queensland hosted the Bunnies on home turf, playing them at 1300SMILES in Round 7 and Barlow Park in Cairns in Round 17.
In the second match, the sense of having something to prove also seemed to cause the Rabbitohs to overreach.
Whatever the reason, the first clash between Souths and North Queensland, in Round 5, will be a good litmus test, not least because it occurs right at the moment when Madge will be hoping to consolidate things.
9. How about the young guns?
If you could boil Souths’ ambition down to one goal in 2017, it’d be depth.
Time and again, in 2016, they were let down by the fact that the players below their top 13 just weren’t very good, or were played out of position too regularly to show their true ability.
For that reason, it will be interesting to see how the new recruits look when they’re called upon, especially those in the backline.
After a cracking double-whammy in the Charity Shield Braidon Burns could find himself in the spotlight sooner than expected, especially with Aaron Gray out for a couple of weeks.
It’ll also be interesting to see how last year’s debutants look after twelve months’ experience, with Siosifa Talakai, in particular, also putting in a very convincing performance against the Dragons last Saturday.
10. Will they make the finals?
At this stage, I’d say definitely. The Bunnies were on a roll at the end of 2016 and appeared to have carried the momentum into the Charity Shield in preparation for Round 1.
They’ve also sought to improve their depth in key positions and seem poised to make the most of Farah.
Still, this is Souths we’re talking about. Anything can happen.
The most important thing for Madge at this point is to ensure a clean sweep of wins and to build momentum over these first couple of weeks.