2021: The Big Kick-Off – Southern Districts
Original photo: Malcolm Chuck
A first season at the helm of the Rebels for experienced head coach Todd Louden was severely hampered by injury, with three popular players unfortunately forced out of the game, a scenario that heavily impacted the club both on and off the field.
But what it did do was give an opportunity to a host of fresh faces who should be all the better for it in 2021, and alongside some shrewd recruitment, season two should see the canny Louden drive his team full-tilt for a spot back in the finals…
Looking back at last year Souths played some good footy at times and racked up some impressive wins, but also dropped a few too many and conceded far too many points for your liking to just miss out on the finals – a scenario not entirely helped by a host of serious injuries. What was your 2020 summary?
“The big thing was that we just didn’t have critical depth. We were very young, and then we just got ripped apart with some severe injuries. The positive out of that is that we blooded a lot of players, and we’ve got a lot of players that now have an understanding of what first grade level and performance is about. So, whilst we felt short and we came agonisingly close, I think in hindsight we were never ready to win it. But we’ve blooded so many players now that I think it holds us in really good stead – providing we can keep them on the field.
“We didn’t have any problems scoring points and we wanted to be staunch in defence but we lacked cohesion and conceded far too many points. But when you lose someone like Harry McLennan, who was our leader in defence, we just couldn’t cover him. Most of the players had played with him since juniors, so we took a morale hit when it was announced that he would never play again. We were gutted. That was the day before we played Easts and it’s a terrible feeling, but I knew before we’d even started that we just weren’t going to turn up because we were all thinking about Harry. He was one of our mood makers and was a bit of the soul of the team. It was such a blow.”
Where did you meet or excel expectations and where did you fall short?
“It was a funny year because – and I hate using the term rebuild – but it was a case of coming in and getting an understanding of what program was in place or what program wasn’t in place, and then really having to piece bits of that program with new elements to take it to the twenty-first century. We were at ground zero last year and with a shortened season, but we had a really good lead up and then three weeks turnaround once Covid hit, so I would say the first part of this year now is really one full season together.
“Spinning an obvious negative into a positive, the Covid season was an absolute beauty for us, because what it did do was build a lot of resilience, and we really came together as a club under some pretty harsh terms. But where we fell down was that we didn’t get to put a medical program or full training program together, so we were kind of piecing young sides together to be competitive. That’s where we fell down and underperformed, but by circumstance rather than by our own doing.
“Where we succeeded was, again by circumstance, that we were actually able to put some teams together in spite of everything. Even when we played Norths, we really gave them a run for their money with numerous players out of position and playing with fourteen men for the last ten minutes. So the guys know how to compete, and that’s a really good basis to work from this year.”
How have the takeaways from last year fed into the focus areas for 2021?
“We’ve supplemented our squad strategically because we’re not like some of these other clubs with the big budgets. We’ve really chosen carefully who we’ve brought into the club to complement our existing player base, and a lot of them have just fitted in hand in glove and taken on the program. We’ve had a lot of players wanting to come over because the program was starting to get quite a lot of attention, and young players could see that they would get opportunities here.
“We’ve also been focusing on some of the lessons we’ve learned from a medical perspective around keeping guys on the field, and on some of the key areas where we didn’t compete. Because a lot of those young players would go really well for two games and then almost fall off a cliff in the third, just because they weren’t up to it for a sustained period.”
We’ve had plenty of wet weather lately but thankfully less Covid disruptions than 2020’s challenge threw up. So how has the 2021 off-season and pre-season gone so far given you’ve had a fuller, more normal run at things?
“It’s been better simply in terms of the human element. Being able to have face-to-face conversations and asking players how they are going, and the whole bonding of the squad because we’re so young as a club and with new guys coming in and becoming a Rebel. That’s something the guys have really embraced.
“It’s been an interesting one in terms of trials. Our first one we played on an absolute bog, and the second was a delayed match against Warringah, which was actually played at Woollahra Oval on a Sunday thanks to Easts and ‘Rivo’ [Warringah head coach Michael Ruthven], who did everything they could to get us on the field. Last week we played Penrith and Queanbeyan, and at the end of the day, trials are a necessary evil. Talking to some of the other clubs at the Shute Shield launch they’ve already lost players to injury, while we’ve fared quite well so far.”
Last year was a bit of a sprint, this season sees a full 19 rounds. How has that informed your approach in terms of game style, player management, fitness regimes etc?
“Last year was just a complete blur in many ways, so we’ve layered everything this year. We’re nowhere near where we want to be at the moment, but we’re happy where we are because we know where we’re going. That sounds quite cryptic, but we’re planning to build through the season, and we need to be cohesive as a club because we’re not going to have superstars flood in from professional rugby later in the year. I’m quite confident in how cohesive the lads are now and how they’ll continue to be, so there’s a real focus on building through the season.
“We had a horror run with injuries last year, so we’ve really supplemented our depth. We’ve retained the majority of our players and retained the majority of our colts, and then supplemented them with the right people rather than just the best players.”
Any specific game plan tweaks to the Rebels style this season, without revealing all?
“We probably went a little bit too far one way last year. We wanted to retain possession and move the ball around, and at times we probably played a little bit too much rugby with the group that we had. So we’ve looked at our kicking game a bit more, and definitely at our set-piece. We had one of the worst defensive lineouts in the comp and it faltered in general with all the injuries as well, so we’ve supplemented that and worked hard at it. it’s not the finished product but it will get better and better as the season goes on.”
There was a lot of social media buzz around Souths last pre-season, around your arrival at the club and the physicality the side were aiming to bring etc. – which they did. But you seem to be quietly going about your business this time around. Is that a deliberate mantra to keep your heads down and let the rugby do the talking?
“Not really, there’s been no real plan. I think that whenever a new coach starts at a club there’s always a lot of myth about it I reckon, but we were definitely quite physical last year in the early rounds and a lot of opposing teams felt that as well. So it wasn’t that we necessarily promoted that, although we did want to play direct and with ball in hand. This year the focus has been more around cohesion, and we’ve trained really hard this off-season. Last year they trained really hard for the first time and would then talk about that, whereas this year it’s just become the norm.“
Are you happy with where the squad is at in terms of player retention and acquisition?
“I’m very happy. There seems to be a lot of moving around in this competition but in terms of retaining we’ve been really good. We had three career-ending injuries last year unfortunately in Marcus Carbone, Harry McLennan and Sam Harris, so we’ve obviously had to look to replace those guys as we didn’t feel that we had someone coming through to bridge the gap until our juniors come through. And we had to supplement our backs because we had so many injuries in those positions last year. But again, we’ve been very strategic, we haven’t just recruited everyone and anyone.”
Which players do you expect to kick-on from last season and shine in 2021?
“I think James Wayland will come to the fore again. He missed at least three-quarters of last season with a really unusual hamstring tear, but he’ll come good again. Isoa Nasilasila, once he’s fit, he’s a very special player who could really do some things, and Phil Potgieter is our captain and he’s really grown over this last year as a leader of the team. He’s a hard-nosed player who leads by action rather than words and he’s perfect for us at the moment, especially with a young squad.“
Give me a couple of new players to get excited about?
“Angus Allen has come on board to replace Harry McLennan, but I’ve got to be careful how I say that because you can’t replace someone like Harry. He’s been down at the Brumbies Academy for a number of years and played behind the likes of David Pocock and Chris Alcock. He had an injury last year that kept him out and he wanted a change of scenery, and he’s been really good.
“Carlos Price is a nine who has played a number of Mitre 10 Cup games and also been in the Hurricanes development side behind TJ Perenara. He’s still only young but he’s quite a classy act as well.”
Who do you have your eyes on as the biggest challengers in 2021?
“It’s funny because we’ve got them in the first two games but Easts and Eastwood are the two that stand out. Easts have really gone hard and supplemented their squad and I’d have to say they’re probably competition favourites at this stage, and I can’t see past Eastwood, they’ll be good again. Obviously, the usual culprits will be around as well nipping at their heels but there’s just a bit of transition around those clubs.
“Randwick have got a lot of players, so it’s how they fit them in and get them to gel that is going to be interesting, and Sydney Uni will be Sydney Uni, they’re a machine. But I think Easts and Eastwood have got more settled, experienced squads, particularly Eastwood. Some would say they were lucky to get to the grand final last year but I don’t believe that, you could see them building throughout the year.“
What is the pass mark for Souths in 2021 – finals footy a minimum and anything else a bonus, or having put the groundwork in across season one are you now solely focused on the holy grail of a maiden Premiership?
“It’s not out of the realms but for me, it’s about finals footy first and foremost. We just don’t have the depth of players coming back from Super Rugby and that will be a deciding factor, so we’ve got to get to the finals and then anything can happen. That’s our pass mark.“