Jason Demetriou has reflected on his first season as head coach of the Rabbitohs, revealing the major call that turned their 2022 campaign around.
South Sydney had an up-and-down year, struggling in the first-half of the year with the absence of Latrell Mitchell and looking like a side that could miss out on the finals for the first time since 2017.
But after a shocking loss to the Dragons in mid-June, the alarm bells began to sound and Souths managed to turn things around, winning seven of their final 10 games.
Speaking on The Bye Round podcast, Demetriou admitted the final stages of their prelim final loss to Penrith was disappointing, but reflected on an overall positive first year in charge.
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“I thought the back-end of the year was a great way to finish,” he said.
“I’m disappointed in the second 40 minutes against Penrith and I’ve spent a fair bit of time reflecting on that and how we can improve.
“I’ve learned that I cope pretty well under pressure, and I don’t put my feelings or anxieties when I’m under the pump onto the playing group.
“I felt like I handled that pretty well and I felt like that was important, because they were feeling enough pressure and they didn’t need to feel mine.
“To be able to compartmentalise that and turn up every day with a positive outlook [was important]. I was able to bring the players on that journey of a player-driven culture and said ‘you guys need to take ownership of this’ and I feel like they did that really well.
“As a club, the other thing we learned was trust is so important inside your four walls. No matter the external noise is, if we trust in what we do and work hard and do whatever it takes for that 80 minutes and our prep, we know we are a good footy side.”
Many players had breakout years for the Bunnies, with the likes of Campbell Graham and Keaon Koloamatangi earning rep honours after the NRL season.
Lachlan Ilias was also a standout in the back-end of the year as he looks to secure the starting halfback spot long-term, finishing with 12 try assists and 16 forced dropouts.
But one moment against St George Illawarra left plenty of supporters and experts concerned about his future at the club, with the playmaker hooked before half-time in the 32-12 defeat.
Demetriou explained the massive decision to bench his No.7 and the events that followed, which saw the rookie coach cop plenty of criticism.
“I understand the reaction and I knew the minute I said I wanted to take Lachy off, I knew what was coming,” he said.
“I will stand by it – it was the right decision to make. He was struggling and he had a glassy look in his eye. With young blokes, when things aren’t going their way, they are like a deer in headlights and they haven’t got the experience or capability to come through that yet.
“It was 30-nil at the time and he had been involved in the last two tries – if I leave him out there and we get beaten by 60, how am I going to play him next week? I knew what was coming and I knew how I was going to handle it as well – if I had dropped him to reserve grade, that would have caused more problems.
“I had spoken to Lachy twice in that last four weeks, because I felt like he had lost his motivation to prove people that he could handle it, he was getting a bit comfortable, and he was starting to look a bit fatigued.
“I didn’t mind it, because I copped it and it took pressure off him. We lost on a Thursday night and we had a bye round the next week, so it was 10-12 days until we had contact with the whole team again.
“I found out through that week where he was in practicing his kicking, doing little things. He was really honest and said ‘you told me I need to be better’ and so it was about getting him back out there and getting him going.
“I thought he was outstanding at the back-end of the year and he will be better for it.”
After the rookie halfback was benched, South Sydney would turn their season around and eventually go down in the prelim final to premiers Penrith.
Demetriou believes the way the Rabbitohs managed to finish the season, as well as their settled roster, places them in a good spot to challenge for the title again next yea.
“It’s set us up nicely for 2023 and I’ve been doing a bit of PD [personal development] on my own and a bit of reflection and areas we want to improve,” he said.
“As soon as the last game finishes, you are thinking about next season already. By the time the last game comes, you know the areas where you think you can improve and how you can improve the squad.
“The exciting thing for us is that we did that internally, I think the emergence of Isaiah Tass and Izaac Thompson and Shaq Mitchell that have come into our top 30.
“We won’t have any new players come in externally from anywhere, so that’s a real positive for us going forward.”