When the South Sydney Rabbitohs run out onto Suncorp Stadium for the NRL Grand Final on Sunday afternoon, it’ll be a new experience for most of the team – although, there remains a few selected who have tasted premiership success for the club once before.
When South Sydney broke a 43-year premiership drought with a 30-6 win over the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs in 2014, it was the culmination of perseverance after consecutive preliminary finals exits in the previous two years.
Seven years later, and again, after years of heartbreak at the final hurdle before grand final week, South Sydney have a chance to recreate that success in tomorrow’s decider against a team out for vengeance; last year’s runners-up, the Penrith Panthers.
On the 2021 Rabbitohs roster, just three players who were involved in the 2014 season remain, and participated in that year’s triumph – Alex Johnston, Adam Reynolds and Tom Burgess. Each of those players are looking at adding another ring to their collection, but mostly want to impart their experience and wisdom onto the rest of the squad for the final game of the season.
Johnston, who was in his first season at NRL level in 2014, had played 17 games prior to the grand final where he was selected as a winger on the lineup. In the 2014 Grand Final, he got the scoring underway, crossing the goal line for the first points of the game – the only try of the first half.
A young, inexperienced part of the backline at the time, the now-26-year-old says he won’t be approaching this year’s contest any differently to seven years ago.
“I think back then, I was just in awe still of just being in first-grade and I was just going out there and playing footy and just loving every minute of it,” Johnston told media in a press conference earlier in the week.
“But now, after having six years after that of not making the grand final again and I’ve really understood the grind and how hard it actually is to make the grand final.
“To be there this year, it’s an awesome feeling and I’m not going to take it for granted, I’m gonna go out there and give it my best.”
The competition’s top try-scorer of the last two years, in further discussing differences between the two grand finals, spoke about the members of the backline, and the chemistry between players.
“The last few years, having Cody [Walker], Latrell [Mitchell] the last couple of years, Gags [Dane Gagai] has been giving me some good ball as well,” Johnston said.
“You know the year that Cody’s had, it’s been unbelievable to play outside those sorts of players and I find myself very lucky that I reap all the rewards and benefits of putting the ball over the line.
“Compared to back then, guys like GI [Greg Inglis] and that, it’s fairly similar, the sort of ball I’m getting. It’s just getting it a bit more regularly I think, we like attacking our left edge so yeah, it’s the same sort of feeling and hopefully we get the job done [again].”
Johnston, who celebrated his 150th NRL game earlier this season maintained he wasn’t going to let the elation of the occasion get to him, noting there was still one game to go in the season.
“After we won the prelim, the boys were all cheering for that long and I was like ‘what’s going on? We’ve got one more game’ and we tried to settle them down,” he said.
“Since then, I think they’ve all realised that the big dance is this week and we’ve got to go and do a job this week and get the job done.
“It’s been a very long time since I’ve felt this confident, [I] have this belief with the group and it’s pretty much a similar feel as it’s been with the 2014 squad so I feel like we’ll get the job done.”
South Sydney’s captain, Reynolds was named at halfback for the 2014 decider and contributed 14 points – scoring one try, three conversions and two penalty goals.
Making his debut with South Sydney in 2012, the now-10-year veteran says when he pulls on the jumper this weekend, it’ll feel like any other week, despite it being the last time he’ll wear the cardinal and myrtle after signing a three-deal deal with the Brisbane Broncos.
“I’ve got a bigger task at hand [than thinking about next year] obviously, I want to win this game, that’s the most important thing at the moment and then we’ll worry about the rest after that”, he stated to media during the week.
Reynolds understands the importance of this weekend’s matchup, it being the second time the Rabbitohs have appeared in the decider since 1971 and that chances like these don’t come too often.
“Grand finals are special to be a part of and we’ve got a great opportunity to do something special,” he described.
“Obviously, this club has only been in two Grand Finals in the past 50 years and they’re pretty rare to come by so… we’ve just got to enjoy the week, prepare well and make sure we turn up on Sunday with the right attitude and make sure we try to achieve the best possible outcome.”
Like Johnston, Reynolds’ advice to his teammates and their approach towards the grand final was to not get too caught up in the gravity of the situation.
“We can get caught up thinking about the game too much and zap a lot of energy that doesn’t need to be the case,” he proclaimed.
“You’ve just got to try and stay relaxed and enjoy it for what it is. It’s a privilege to be in this position and we’ve just got to make the most of our opportunities on Sunday.”
A South Sydney fan growing up, Reynolds recognises the significance he and the team carry into this game, looking to continue the legacy passed on through the years and the last few decades. Knowing premierships are built on captains, and his own injury issues heading into this part of the season, a fairytale finish may be brewing for him and the club.
“I’m fully aware that you might need to play through a bit of pain through this game and I’m fine with that obviously,” he conceded.
“Grand finals are very hard to get to and you do whatever it takes to win the game so, yeah, touch wood nothing happens but if something happens I’ll try and play through it.”
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The final current-day Souths player remaining from the 2014 Grand Final, Burgess began the game on the bench though found time on the field, coming on for 47 minutes of play. He would have the most post-contact metres of any of his teammates for the game (82) as he routinely crashed packs, and held his opponents up.
Burgess, who shared in the glory of 2014 with his brothers George and Sam (with Luke missing the grand final) said he’s in a different stage of his life now, meaning reflecting on that premiership brings up a sense of acknowledgement of how lucky he is.
“If you look back to 2014, I was a young 22-year-old lad with as many games under his belt so I’m just enjoying being there playing footy,” he outlined while speaking to the media.
“I think, you’ve got to take things from that as well, obviously you want to be playing well and doing those things for the team this weekend and not getting too emotional but yeah, [it’s] definitely a different stage in my life for me.
“I think it really does make me appreciate how important it is that I’m here and I don’t want to take it for granted that’s for sure.”
Burgess commented on the effect of having the experience of him, Johnston and Reynolds with grand final experience, as well as Benji Marshall who won the premiership in 2005 with Wests Tigers has on the greater squad who are experiencing the magnitude of the week.
“We’ve worked all year to get to this position now so y’know, we’re here,” he said.
“When we’re training, we need to be on and doing the proper training and getting that quality there first of all cause it really does help going into the game.
“Obviously, enjoying all the other things that are going on with it and just embracing it and y’know, it’s going to be one of the best weeks of your life and you’re going to remember it for a while.”
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