PETER STERLING: All aboard Bunnywagon

M

ario Fenech is one of the most genuine and honest men I have ever met and one of my favourite people.

It is true that we have given him a difficult time over the years on The Footy Show, but it has always been completely tongue-in-cheek.

However, as good a bloke as he is, if South Sydney happen to win this year’s competition, he could become absolutely unbearable.

No one wears his heart on his sleeve more passionately when it comes to his beloved Rabbitohs than the “Maltese Falcon”.

After inquiring as to the health and well-being of your family, Souths are invariably the next topic of conversation, and hasn’t he been in a bubbly mood over the last few months.

He was, of course, captain of the side when the club had their last realistic shot at premiership glory way back in 1989.

After finishing as minor premiers they bowed out after consecutive losses and were left to watch Canberra and Balmain battle it out in one of the game’s greatest ever deciders.

Their only finals appearance since then was in 2007 when they finished seventh and again made the earliest of exits.

Last weekend Souths ensured that they are certain starters in this year’s play-offs with a comfortable victory over the Tigers, and it would seem that in 2012 they are indeed capable of at least being there on grand final day.

In what remains an open competition, the Rabbits have captured the imagination with a brand of exciting, attacking football and a new-found mental toughness and resilience.

They have often displayed the former in recent seasons but never enough of the latter.

Over the last few months the side have shown a much greater propensity to absorb pressure and defend disappointment.

Despite being ranked mid-table statistically in defence, there are signs of distinct improvement.

They have led 13 times at half-time this season and been run down on only three occasions.

They have prevailed in both their golden-point matches.

There have also been a comparatively large number of six players make their top-grade debut this year, including Adam Reynolds and Maitland’s Andrew Everingham.

Everingham scored with his first touch against Penrith in round three and has gone on to score 13 tries in his 17 appearances. More importantly, he has been outstanding in his reading and execution in defence.

Reynolds is the lay-down misère as this season’s rookie of the year and is very much following the path taken by Manly’s Daly Cherry-Evans in 2011.

Following the departure of Chris Sandow, the big question was who would step into the influential number seven jersey, and a number of eyebrows were raised when new coach Michael Maguire opted not to chase a high-profile replacement.

He believed they had the right man already within the club and his judgment could not have been more justified.

The word I have used most often in describing the 22-year-old Reynolds has been “unflappable”, and when it comes to decision making under pressure he has rivalled the likes of Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston in his opening season.

An astute general kicking game and an 85 per cent goal-kicking record only add to the package.

He is a gem.

Obviously the decision by Maguire to move Greg Inglis to fullback was also a masterstroke, allowing the true match-winner to be more involved but also to have a major influence on his teammates.

No one has benefited more than five-eighth John Sutton, who is now becoming the player he always had the potential to be.

With the constant menace of Inglis at the back, opposition defences aren’t confident of putting the same heat on Sutton and he is relishing taking on hesitant defenders with more room to move.

He has often been put forward as a player with Origin ability, but selectors shied away because of an inability to put effort on effort and a penchant to drift in and out of a contest.

We saw how far his game has come against the Tigers on Sunday in his dominance and the way he took complete control, even in the absence of Inglis.

Assessing the so-called “spine” of a team, namely their numbers 1, 6, 7 and 9, seems to be the popular way to assess its strength.

If that is a realistic assessment, then the combination of Inglis, Sutton, Reynolds and Issac Luke is as strong as any in the competition.

However, despite this obvious “star” power (also throw in Sam Burgess, Dave Taylor and Mick Crocker), it may well be the lower lights in the squad who determine Souths’ chances of ultimate success this year.

To win a competition you must have the right balance in your football team with a combination of talent, experience, youth, belief and physical and mental toughness. A fair degree of luck also doesn’t go astray.

It is also essential to have those players who don’t feature in headlines or representative teams but provide much of the heart and soul of the side.

In my day it was Steve Sharp, Mark Laurie, Geoff Bugden and Gary Martine who were unsung heroes.

Andrew Johns likened them to Billy Peden, Matt Parsons, Paul Marquet, Glenn Grief, Daniel Abraham and Clinton O’Brien in 2001.

Last year Manly would have struggled to get the job done against the Warriors without the input of Joe Galuvao, Shane Rodney and Vic Mauro.

South Sydney are also extremely well served in this department with the likes of Chris McQueen, Dave Tyrrell, Ed Pettybourne, Nathan Peats and Ben Lowe all making major contributions in pushing the club into second on the ladder.

I don’t mind admitting I’m on the Rabbitohs bandwagon.

Firstly, because I am finding them the most entertaining side to watch; and secondly, because of the opportunity it opens up.

Can’t you just see it.

Grand final day at ANZ Stadium with the scores locked up in the final moments and Adam Reynolds with a kick from in front to win the title.

The young half turns to the stands for confirmation on what he should do.

At the front of his club corporate box Russell Crowe stands up, raises his arm in the air and in dramatic fashion gives the thumb-down sign.

Now surely there’s a Hollywood script in there somewhere!

P.S. I just got a text from Mario Fenech asking: “How good are Souths going??”

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