When Taane Milne crossed over the try line in the 66th minute of South Sydney’s Semi-Final Match against the Cronulla Sharks, it set in stone the continuation of the team’s finals run. Though, what lies ahead of them on their path to the Grand Final is also the opportunity for redemption. The South Sydney Rabbitohs will take on the defending champions, the Penrith Panthers: the team that took the title away from South Sydney last year.
There were a lot of what-ifs that could’ve been asked when it came to the 2021 NRL Grand Final. For me, the biggest one would be: “what if Latrell Mitchell wasn’t suspended?” Mitchell’s season ended abruptly during the Round 25 clash last year against the Sydney Roosters. Mitchell blindside shoulder-charged into former teammate, Joey Manu, fracturing Manu’s eye socket. The judiciary threw the proverbial book at Mitchell and suspended him for six matches, ruling him out for the rest of the season, including the Grand Final.
Then, in a close and low-scoring Grand Final, a 66th-minute interception by Stephen Crichton would score what would end up being the winning try. When Adam Reynolds missed South Sydney’s last-minute sideline conversion in his final match before moving to the Brisbane Broncos for the 2022 season, the score finished at 14-12. Penrith Panthers were granted their first premiership since 2003 and left South Sydney players and fans pondering what might have been–and whether, had the star fullback not been suspended, the title might have been given to the Rabbitoh’s instead.
The South Sydney Rabbitohs would be starting 2022 with a few key leavers from the club, including Dane Gagai, who would return to his former club in Newcastle; Jadyn Su’A to the Dragons; Benji Marshall retiring; Adam Reynolds to the Broncos; plus, the big staff loss of coach Wayne Bennett (as most clubs that Bennett has left have demonstrated some struggle for the first few years post-coach). Souths would promote Lachlan Ilias to starting halfback and would bring in Isaiah Tass from the Broncos, Michael Chee Kam from the Tigers, and Siliva Havili from the Raiders. The new coach would be Jason Demetriou, who was an assistant coach under Wayne Bennett during the 2020 and 2021 season.
The opening four rounds of 2022 were a mixed bag for the club, suffering two tough low-scoring losses to the Broncos and Storm to start the season, but the Rabbitohs secured a win against their major rivals, the Sydney Roosters, in Round 3. Then in Round 4, against the Penrith Panthers, in their first meeting since the Grand Final, the Souths lost 26-12. But, after this loss, they won their next two games convincingly against the Dragons and the Bulldogs.
The team took a hit after the game against the Dragons when Latrell Mitchell suffered a hamstring injury which saw him head to the United States for recovery–not to return until Round 16. During that time, the club traded wins and losses evenly, with Kodi Nikorima stepping up to fill Mitchell’s position. By the time Mitchell returned, the Rabbitohs were situated in 7th place, with several teams vying for the finals spots. Mitchell was eager to catch up on lost time and went on to win his return match against the Eels, and the next three matches, solidifying the club’s place within the finals. They faced the Panthers again in Round 23. With the Panthers’ playmakers Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai both out, a win here would have set the Rabbitohs with some great momentum into the finals. But yet again, after a brilliant match by both teams, a last-minute Liam Martin try for Penrith saw them beat South Sydney and secure them minor premiership in the process. This proves the statement: “even if you are good, you’re still a long way from being the best.”
South Sydney finished 7th in the regular season, made finals, and would face their hated rivals–the Sydney Roosters–in the Elimination Final. Ironically, both teams played each other in the last week with the Roosters winning. But this time, it was different. An absolute war broke out, with eight players being sent to the ‘sin bin’ and countless high shots and penalties awarded–so much so that South Sydney at one point had a two-man disadvantage with the score at 8-6 in favour of the Roosters. Then, out of nowhere, Latrell Mitchell scored to put South Sydney back in the lead. The Roosters would never take back the league. With the final score of 30–14, South Sydney eliminated the Roosters from the finals and faced the Cronulla Sharks in the Semi-Final.
Cronulla finished 2nd in the season and was coming off a 93-minute epic against the North Queensland Cowboys in the Qualifying Final, in which they lost 32–30. But, the Sharks still had hope: finishing in the top 4 grants teams that lose the Qualifying Final a second chance. South Sydney lost troops for this match, as Thomas Burgess (who got sin-binned twice in the match against the Roosters) was suspended for two weeks. However, this meant very little, as by half-time the Rabbitohs were 18–0 up and the Sharks wouldn’t make it close for the rest of the match. The South’s won with a dominant 38–12 win.
Now, South Sydney sees themselves one win away from the 2022 NRL Grand Final and, once again, they will play the Penrith Panthers. An opportunity of redemption to quell the horrid memories of last, and this, season. From what we have witnessed this season, there is a lot more motivation for this South Sydney team and they are playing the best rugby league seen from the club in a long time. Do they win this game and beat the Panthers? I guess we have to wait till Saturday.