Monday, April 15, 2024

What South Sydney Rabbitohs and Jason Demetriou learnt from 2023 disaster

Demetriou went all the way to England to visit a top psychologist to help him deal with it – and to help him better handle adversity in the future.

“I’ve had a lot of success as a coach since I’ve started, working through the lower grades and winning things,” Demetriou says. “I’ve coached in grand finals as an assistant, and reached the prelims as an NRL head coach.

Demetriou was criticised for being too close to superstar Latrell Mitchell.

Demetriou was criticised for being too close to superstar Latrell Mitchell.Credit: Getty

“But last year was the first time I had seen that downside. When things go wrong, it can come thick and fast, and it hits you in the face. It gave me a great opportunity to reflect on how I handle things, and how I can make things better this year.”

The storylines never stopped coming out of Souths last year.

Like Latrell Mitchell’s calf injury, which was only meant to keep him out of action for two weeks, but ended up being 10. Or the unsavoury abuse levelled at Mitchell by a young fan at Penrith in round two. Then came the suggestions the star No.1 and five-eighth Cody Walker received preferential treatment at the club.

There was also the highly publicised split with assistant coach Sam Burgess, the emotion of the passing of club legend John Sattler and the farewelling of historic Redfern Oval to start life at their new Heffron Park facility.

Jason Demetriou and Sam Burgess at training … before it all went wrong last season.

Jason Demetriou and Sam Burgess at training … before it all went wrong last season.Credit: Getty

And 2024 started in a similar vein. Campbell Graham underwent sternum surgery, Walker missed the All Stars with another calf injury that has him in doubt for the start of the season and winger Tyrone Munro broke his collarbone.

Demetriou might have had a great run during his coaching career, but the past six months have been a very different story.

Overcoming injuries

Graham played with painkilling injections for a sternum injury last year and pulled out of the first NSW Origin camp because he was in so much discomfort.

Campbell Graham played through pain for much of 2023 before undergoing surgery recently.

Campbell Graham played through pain for much of 2023 before undergoing surgery recently.Credit: Getty

He will now be missing for the first half of the season after flying to Brisbane to have surgery. Jack Bird underwent the same operation in 2018 and has not had an issue since. Questions were asked about why Souths did not book Graham in for surgery at the end of last season.

“The advice we received was they wanted to see if Campbell’s injury could settle down on its own,” Demetriou says. “Surgery is a big deal, but he had an infusion injection, which takes eight to 10 weeks to see if it works. There was significant improvement, and had he not been an NRL player, it would have settled down in 18 months time. But that wasn’t an option given the line of work he is in.

“I spoke to him after his surgery on Wednesday, and he’s feeling good. He’s in the best shape he’s been in for 18 months, and that will only help with his recovery.”

As for Walker, Demetriou says: “He’ll be on the plane [to Las Vegas for round one]. It’s only a minor calf strain, but we’ll give him every chance to play. If he’s not right, we have a week off the following week before round two, so we won’t rush him. We don’t want to risk him for one game and then potentially lose him for six games.

“We’ve also got confidence in ‘Deano’ [Hawkins] and Lachie [Ilias] stepping up and getting the job done. I won’t be moving Latrell into the halves. He’s had the best pre-season he’s had in a long, long time. Mentally he’s in such a great place, and I’m looking forward to seeing him out there as our No.1.”

Lethal left edge

Keaon Koloamatangi will move to the opposite side of the field this year, which gives Souths the most frightening left-edge attack in the NRL. It already was, but now it looks even more imposing with the NSW back-rower switching sides.

Koloamatangi, Mitchell, Walker, Wighton, who returns from suspension in round three, and prolific try-scorer Alex Johnston will keep NRL coaches awake at night.

Jai Arrow will become the starting right-edge back-rower with Taane Milne and Richie Kennar given their chance in the Charity Shield to nail the centre and wing auditions on that side of the field.

Keaon Koloamatangi will add to South Sydney’s lethal left edge.

Keaon Koloamatangi will add to South Sydney’s lethal left edge.Credit: Getty

Demetriou has liked what he has seen from Koloamtangi this summer and American fans will see Koloamatangi go head-to-head with fellow Tongan heavyweight and Manly wrecking ball Haumole Olakau’atu, who has also impressed on the northern beaches after signing a monster $7 million-plus, eight-year contract.

“I felt like at times we played too lateral on our left edge [last season], and with Keaon going over there, and his ability to play through the line and around it, and his different variations, he makes what is already a strong edge an even stronger edge,” Demetriou says. “Moving Keaon also gives us some consistency on an edge. We had to mix it up a lot last year because of injuries. Jai has experience, and defensively in the back row also tightens up our right edge. Throw in Jacob Host, Michael Chee Kam and Thomas Fletcher backing them up, and we’ve got good depth.”

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Coaching furnace

Despite all the late-season issues, South Sydney extended Demetriou’s contract in October until the end of 2026 in a real show of faith. So, even in the unlikely event Souths tank for a second straight season, Demetriou is going nowhere – in theory, at least.

Crucially, for the man entering his third season in the hot seat, Demetriou has the backing of his senior players, most notably Mitchell, who has spoken many times about what a happy place he is in, and Cameron Murray, who has come into his own as captain.

“I can’t control what is written or said, but I can control what goes on here during the week, and how we prepare to play,” Demetriou says. “We just need to trust what we have inside our four walls, and everyone inside being committed to what’s important next.”

Like all marriages, it’s been a rocky road – and not even time for a honeymoon.

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