The jury is still out on the South Sydney Rabbitohs after a tense two-point victory over the Wests Tigers on Thursday evening.
When Wayne Bennett’s side are at their best, they are an exciting team to watch. Their recent form has been strong as they find good touch at the right end of the season, but it’s their deadly on-field combinations which are causing headaches left, right and centre.
The problem for the Rabbitohs, as it has been for much of the season, is that their best is a long, long way from their worst, and that was again evident against the Tigers as the long-term ninth-placed side made a staggering comeback to almost snatch the game at the death.
Alas, they didn’t and any chance of playing finals has gone with it, while the Rabbitohs have locked their spot up in the eight beyond even mathematical doubt, but there is plenty left for the Rabbitohs to work on.
This is not to talk about their premiership chances, as the way they are playing virtually means it comes down to whether they can put four consistent performance together when it counts, but to simply analyse the way they have been playing. It’s almost odd that a Wayne Bennett-coached team is struggling for concentration, consistency, defence and attention to detail, but that is the exact spot the Rabbitohs find themselves in.
After spending much of the season not beating any top eight sides, they threw that monkey off their back with a crunching win over the Eels a fortnight ago. That followed the big victory over injury-ravaged Manly the week before, and suddenly pundits were sitting up and taking notice.
It wasn’t until they got the better of the Storm for 40 minutes, though, that they could really be taken seriously.
Unfortunately, the problems that led to them eventually losing last weekend re-emerged last night against the Tigers, almost costing them the two competition points.
The way South Sydney played in the first 25 minutes, compared to the next 55, was eerily reminiscent of their killer start and following drop off last week, and it’s a trend they must buck if they want to go anywhere in the finals.
You see, when they are at their best, with a rolling forward pack who hit the stomach, get up for quick play the balls and pave the way for Adam Reynolds, Damien Cook and the in-form Cody Walker to go to work, they are pretty to watch.
As yet, the absence of Latrell Mitchell has barely been felt, with Alex Johnston slotting straight into an attacking structure which is resulting in plenty of long-range, free-flowing tries and that will give them a point of difference when knockout footy hits.
But it’s not something you can maintain for 80 minutes, especially under the current version of NRL rules which have proven to aid a team with momentum for a length of time, before that flips and the going suddenly becomes very uphill. That means defence wins premierships, although that is hardly new information.
The Roosters of the last two years, the Storm of 2017, the Sharks of 2016 and going back further, virtually every premiership team of the last decade has built their run on defence, with the attack running off the back of that.
The top teams this year – Penrith, Melbourne and the Roosters – are all doing that again. South Sydney seem to be trying to take the opposite approach, and it leads to lazy shortcut taking at times, which is costing them dearly in the back-end of games.
Unfortunately for the Rabbitohs and Wayne Bennett, it’s not just one problem you can put your finger on either, with the team seeming to attack in droves as a unit, but then fall asleep in terms of defence and ball control as a unit.
Risky attacking footy is always going to lead to more errors, and while the Rabbitohs do need to play that style if they are going to get the most out of their two dynamic weapons in Cook and Walker, they do need to realise that when the going gets tough, throwing the footy around like the Harlem Globetrotters won’t win them games.
So funnily enough, in this instance, Step 1 of fixing their defence is actually their attack, and just gradually controlling things. Letting in 24 points when possession was virtually even and the opposition only complete at 72 per cent simply isn’t good enough.
It’s all about not taking the shortcuts which led to some soft tries for the Tigers last night, and indeed the Storm a week ago. The try in particular for Luke Garner last night might as well have been defended by a wet piece of paper. He went through almost untouched, and that simply isn’t good enough.
Their edge defence was also extremely questionable, and at this point of the season, fixing it is easier said than done.
Once momentum swung, they seemed like they didn’t have the patience or consistency to get it back, which we have seen those aforementioned top contenders do time and time again this season. When the going gets tough, they roll up the sleeves and do the hard yards.
Souths, on the other hand, seem to just try and find the easiest way out of it possible.
It’s very similar to the way Cronulla have played this season. It’s an attitude which seems to suggest scoring more points than the opposition is the key to victory.
The ladder indicates the opposite, and if the Rabbitohs with their litany of stars are to do anything in the knockout stage of the season, they need to be strong at both ends of the park.
This is a side who have the cattle, the experience and the coach, but at the moment, lack the mental toughness.
They are fast running out of time to change it.