A Shallow Dive into the 2021 South Sydney Rabbitohs

The South Sydney Rabbitohs finished the season in third on the ladder, with a 20-4 record that would be worthy of recognition had not one, but two, other teams gone one better. With 775 points scored and 453 conceded, the Rabbitohs were only good for 17.6 Pythagorean wins, meaning the 20 actual wins accrued is a gross overperformance. We could ascribe some of that to excessively bad losses in the first half of the season but all results have equal weighting and the 50 point “rule” continues to hold, which is probably the most disappointing thing about this whole season.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

I admire the cockiness of ordering 10,000 “South Sydney 2021 Premiers” t-shirts in March in a now deleted tweet. It’s the kind of big dick energy that comes with winning one premiership that matters and a bunch more that don’t against labourers and dockers.

Last year’s question marks are gone. The narrative power of sending the all-time GOAT rugby league coach out a winner is simply too powerful. We are beyond statistics and numbers and deep into primal rugby league territory. The 2021 premiership awaits.

That was all I wrote and I was one intercept pass away from being right.

What happened

People slept on the Bunnies, even though they had worked their way into the mix of the top three teams. I tweeted about them being the top rated team in late August for zero likes.

As the chips fell where they did, Souths found themselves in a 50-50 grand final without their star fullback. Given they had beaten Penrith just three weeks earlier without said fullback, there was no reason Souths couldn’t win this.

But they didn’t. Would the Rabbitohs have beaten the Panthers with Latrell Mitchell?

To find out, let’s break down the four meetings these two teams had during the 2021 season.

The interesting thing here is that Mitchell played in the two games that the Rabbitohs were out-Taylored, noticeably in the Dicking in Dubbo, but did not play in the two games Souths had the ostensible advantage, including the only game out of the four that Souths actually won.

If we isolate the back three, it’s a different story.

The gap is only eight Taylors – basically nothing – in a 44 point loss and narrows to four in a 13 point loss, before blowing out to 20 Taylors in a win and then, ultimately, 38 in a narrow loss.

By comparing to the other platoons, it’s clear that Souths needed more from their back three.

The forwards out-gunned Penrith in the grand final but weren’t able to do it with the dominance they did in the week one final. That dominance had previously covered for the outside backs’ blemishes. When Penrith’s pack matched up to Souths’, or close enough to, it was time for the wingers and fullback to stand up. Taaffe and Paulo didn’t.

Taaffe put up a TPR of .077 in the grand final, compared to Mitchell’s season average of .120. Obviously, there are no guarantees that Mitchell would have performed at his usual level. After all, Taaffe’s average as starting fullback prior to the grand final was .143 (from a much smaller sample size). However, I think it’s a safe bet that Mitchell would have been more reliably better than Taaffe actually was. Mitchell’s presence probably could have been counted on to add another 15 Taylors. It wouldn’t have eliminated the gap but would have put the game within reach of the Rabbitohs and perhaps minimised the damage done by Paulo.

This isn’t to blow it out of proportion: Souths were a missed conversion and a field goal away from the title. The disparity in the end result couldn’t be greater – the Panthers’ one premiership claimed this year is infinitely greater than Souths’ zero – but this does not reflect how close it was on the field.

There’s always next year

Losing the greatest coach to, presumably, the Moreton Bay Dolphins doesn’t help. Losing their star halfback to the Broncos and their Origin centre to the Knights doesn’t either. That 2.5 wins of outperformance of Pythagorean expectation is probably going to demand a significant regression to mean next season.

The return of Latrell Mitchell will be welcome. Jason Demetriou’s biggest task is to get the best out of him while keeping his emotions in check. Cody Walker, one of the finest halves in the game, is still there, coming off a 1.8 WARG season. The incumbent Blues hooker, finally having figured out how to turn up in big games, will be helpful.

There’s still a lot to like about Souths. They’re a move or two away from maintaining their place in the upper echelon of the league, although Anthony Milford coming in is a dicey start to the reload. But there will be definite headwinds in 2022 and how they respond will tell us whether their premiership window is closing or if its permanently jammed open.