Round 1 predicted teams: If Latrell fires and Wighton fits in, Souths can go all the way in 2024
As part of a series profiling the expected Round 1 sides for all 17 NRL clubs in 2024, it’s time to see if Souths can finally deliver a Premiership after last year’s collapse.
South Sydney were the great flameouts of 2023, yet enter 2024 with no reason not to be aiming at the very highest prize.
Last year was perhaps a false representation of their skills, as Origin, injuries, a long stretch on the road and behind the scenes troubles ate away at their strong start.
Now, with Jack Wighton the standout signing of the off-season and Jason Demetriou backed to the hilt by the higher-ups, it’s time to deliver a Premiership back to South Sydney.
If we’re talking on-field, this year is all about finding the team that can beat the Panthers.
The Broncos (almost) showed last year that the best way to beat elite defence is to have an even more elite offence – and in many ways, they did so by playing the sort of footy that Souths have played since at least 2021.
Whereas Brisbane might struggle to hit those heights again, having lost two key components, you can see a world where Souths and the Roosters, who have added to their squads and are burned by underperformance last year, become the best challengers.
Make no mistake about it, too: much as the NRL talked the talk on the wonders of the Battle of the West in the Grand Final, that would be child’s play compared to a Souths-Chooks GF, or, indeed, one between Souths and the Broncos.
The star power at Souths suggests that anything short of a GF is a failure and a Premiership should be the goal.
Latrell Mitchell, Cam Murray, Cody Walker and, now, Wighton are genuine superstars, Jai Arrow, Damien Cook and Keaon Koloamatangi have all played Origin and Campbell Graham would have but was injured (and has played for the Kangaroos).
Tom Burgess is a long-time rep prop and Alex Johnston has just about every tryscoring record going. Lachlan Ilias would be seen as the weak point, but in general, he’s been about as good as the guys around him and – to this observer at least – is very unfairly treated for the crime of not being Adam Reynolds.
As a coach, Demetriou has established a really clear style, and there’ll be no doubt about how his side want to play. Now, the job is to actually do it when it matters.
Only two ins – but you might have heard of one of them. That’s right, we’re all excited to see Sean Keppie in the cardinal and myrtle, but where will they fit him in?!
The recruitment at Souths has been sparse of late, with zero incomings last year and just two this, Wighton because he was too good a player to turn down when he fell into their lap and the other as a direct replacement for a departure.
Hame Sele leaving for the Dragons is pretty much covered by Keppie’s arrival, with a big body into the pack, and brings with it the chance for a few of the other middles to step up.
Davvy Moale is now into season three of first grade, Shaq Mitchell looking a lot better than he initially did on arrival in the NRL and Daniel Suluka-Fifita always an option. Plenty rests on at least one of those three kicking on.
Alongside the aforementioned Sele, the departures are guys that the Bunnies weren’t too bothered to see leave.
Blake Taaffe is clearly a good player but was never going to make regular appearances as long as Latrell exists. He goes to the Bulldogs with everyone’s good wishes.
Jed Cartwright, now at Newcastle, bumbled along fairly competently in the backrow, but the Bunnies are stacked in that position with Jacob Host and Michael Chee-Kam able to operate there, plus the emergence of Tallis Duncan as a bench option.
Key spots to unlock?
Souths are a bit of a closed shop in that we all know exactly how they will play and it’s really up to them to do it as well as they can.
The talent is there and is only amplified by Wighton’s arrival, which both delivers them an elite centre and solves the other backline issue, with whichever of Isaiah Tass and Campbell Graham they choose as the winger an upgrade on the other options.
The forwards might be a little more complex, but with Keppie in, Sele out they haven’t lost much and you’d expect that group to improve anyway with an extra year’s footy into the likes of Moale and Shaq Mitchell.
The composition is probably Demetriou’s biggest question. He swapped Tom Burgess between starting and interchange several times last year – largely, it seemed, based on fitness and opponent match-ups – with Jai Arrow also never settling on a spot.
By the end of the year, Jacob Host had the most starts alongside Koloamatangi in the back row, but one suspects that necessity was the mother of invention there.
With everyone fit and available, Arrow will probably go for 80 minutes on an edge, with Tevita Tatola, Burgess, Keppie and one of Moale and Shaq doing short bursts.
Still, Host and Chee-Kam are more than serviceable depth, Siliva Havili can also play middle and offers permanent 9 cover and Arrow is basically now a two-way option that enables Duncan to get minutes off the bench, either spelling Murray or as a spark plug.
All in all, it’s a really good problem to have for JD.
Round 1 predicted team
1 Latrell Mitchell
2 Alex Johnston
3 Jack Wighton
4 Campbell Graham
5 Isaiah Tass
6 Cody Walker
7 Lachlan Ilias
8 Tevita Tatola
9 Damien Cook
10 Tom Burgess
11 Keaon Koloamatangi
12 Jai Arrow
13 Cameron Murray
14 Siliva Havili
15 Sean Keppie
16 Davvy Moale
17 Tallis Duncan
Other squad members: Michael Chee-Kam, Taane Milne, Shaq Mitchell, Jacob Host, Dean Hawkins, Tyrone Munro, Peter Mamouzelos, Ben Lovett, Jye Gray, Daniel Suluka-Fifita, Leon Te Hau, Izaac Thompson
Development players: Tom Fletcher, Dion Teaupa, Richie Kennar, Liam Le Blanc, Haizyn Mellars, Jacob Gagai