Many pundits thought South Sydney had booked their place in the grand final after just 80 minutes of football this year.
The Rabbitohs looked to have overcome the attacking deficiencies that left them one game short of a grand final appearance in successive seasons. They looked crisp and their ball movement was quick and expansive as they rattled the Roosters to win 28-8.
They went on to lose their next three games as their attack struggled.
Much had been made of South Sydney’s pre-season attacking focus. Like St George Illawarra, who looked to attack more after Wayne Bennett departed, only for their defence to suffer, South Sydney experienced a similar fate.
Obviously, the injury to would-be five-eighth Luke Keary altered their plans. And it’s easy to suggest that moving John Sutton back to the halves from lock was the key factor in the Rabbitohs recording their second win of the season against St George Illawarra on Saturday.
South Sydney’s success has stemmed from their forwards, but they too struggled in the early rounds.
As coach Michael Maguire said, Sutton’s move to lock wasn’t a failure. It won’t be as ill-fated as Braith Anasta’s foray at fullback and Preston Campbell's switch to hooker.
And the chances are Sutton will end up back at lock when Keary returns from a ruptured pectoral muscle around the middle of the season.
“If you saw [Sutton] in round one, he was playing in the middle and his performance there was quite strong,” Maguire said.
“We’ve still got that up our sleeve to go back and utilise him there. We obviously have Lukey Keary to come back.
“We still do things very much similar, even though John was playing in the middle. It allowed us a little bit more expansion in our game. Dylan Walker played really well at times at five-eighth.
“Putting John back there obviously allows us to go back to a similar style to what we had last year. We had the ability to shift the ball last year as well.
“We just have to make sure we are focusing on the fundamentals of the game. I think that was probably our biggest drama in the first four weeks. If you’re not hanging onto the ball you’re putting pressure on yourself and you’re going to have to defend. I thought our defence through that period wasn’t up to Souths standard and we got back to that against St George.”
Circumstances conspired against the Rabbitohs and Sutton wasn’t allowed to settle. Losses didn’t help, nor did poor ball control and outside backs who struggled to make a dent in the opposition.
Aside from Inglis, Walker is South Sydney’s best attacking option. His impact is lessened when he is confronted by two or three defenders in the middle of the field.
“I thought with Dylan being able to go back into the centres it allowed us a few little options there when we went up an edge,” Maguire said. “We’ve gone back to a lot of fundamentals and making sure we do that on the training park.
“You’re seeing things a bit quicker now; teams are pushing passes.
“If you hang onto the ball, that’s going to suit anyone. We are lucky we have some size in our pack. When we are hanging onto the ball we gave ourselves an opportunity and built pressure.”
Sutton’s presence in the halves takes pressure off halfback Adam Reynolds. Prior to this season, Reynolds had played alongside Sutton in all but one of his 53 matches since making his NRL debut in 2012.
Back-rower Ben Te’o said one of Sutton's attributes was his ability to straighten the team’s attack.
“We have done a lot of work on our attack in the off-season,” Te’o said. “After the first week we were pretty confident in what we were doing. From then on, it just wasn’t clicking. When it’s not clicking you just go back to basics.
“The difference was that he [Sutton] organised a lot. He is a very good talker. He plays very straight and is a runner, too. When things get a little heated, he can think under pressure.”