This article was first written for and published by NRL.com.
I’m one of the many rugby league fans that didn’t have the South Sydney Rabbitohs in my top eight for 2018.
Despite boasting, on paper, a strong squad with the likes of Angus Crichton, Damien Cook, the Burgess brothers and Greg Inglis, I wasn’t willing to take a chance on a team with a new coach, particularly after their form over the last two seasons.
With nine rounds to go, the Bunnies are sitting pretty on top of the table and are one of the main contenders for the title.
Plenty of credit must go to their new coach, Anthony Seibold.
But who is Anthony Seibold? Prior to being announced as the new Bunnies coach last year, he was an unfamiliar name for plenty of footy fans, despite having been a full-time rugby league coach for 12 years.
Seibold started his coaching career in 2005 in the United Kingdom. He was with the Celtic Crusaders for four years before heading back to Australia to coach the Mackay Cutters in the Intrust Super Cup. He then relocated to Melbourne to coach the Storm under-20 team as a development coach.
From Melbourne, he came to Sydney to take an assistant coach role under Trent Barrett at Manly. Seibold was meant to stay with Barrett and Manly for two years, but then an opportunity came up at Souths which was simply too good to refuse.
Not all former players make good coaches. But it was during his time in the Super League that Seibold began his Master of Education – he already had a Bachelors degree. After he retired from playing, he spent two years coaching high school and 15 months lecturing at a university.
Key skills he learnt during this phase of his career were about planning and preparation and getting up in front of a group to speak. Additionally, a key part of teaching is learning to give feedback and assess performance – all useful skills for a coach.
Let’s talk footy.
I have loved watching the Bunnies this year. In the first couple of rounds, I was quite wary because it looked like they were playing the same rigid, attacking football that led them to missing the eight for the last two seasons.
It was this same type of footy that won the Bunnies a comp in 2014, but unfortunately, the rest of the Telstra Premiership caught up and Souths failed to adapt.
When I explained that observation to Seibold, he found it interesting because he and his coaching staff made a key decision to “change the way they wanted to attack from day one” so they could play to their strengths.
To my untrained eye, there may not have been much improvement in the Rabbitohs in the early rounds. In their first game against the Warriors, they made eight line breaks. Four of those led to tries. Despite having more line breaks than the Warriors, their inability to score off them led to their defeat.
In round two against the Panthers, a different issue emerged. The Bunnies went into half-time with a lead, but when Greg Inglis went down injured eight minutes into the second half, the Panthers had a weakness to target and capitalised.
So even though I may not have noticed change, internally, Seibold had.
The game that triggered my close interest in South Sydney was their round 10 win over St George Illawarra. This was only the Dragons’ second loss of the season.
There were plenty of outstanding performances in this game. Sam Burgess was great in his 135-metre return from a suspension. Not to be outdone, Crichton was also improvess as he made 188 metres.
But what really impressed me was that the Bunnies went into half-time with a 12-0 lead despite having only 43% possession in the first half.
South Sydney went on to win that game 24-10 and announced themselves as premiership contenders.
According to Seibold, that game was an “opportunity to test ourselves and see where we were at”. They passed with flying colours.
What is different this year is the Bunnies are no longer sticking to rigid, attacking football. They play what is in front of them. Adam Reynolds takes on the line when he sees an opportunity. If he sees limited options he will throw a cut-out pass.
There is no-one better out of dummy half at the moment than Damien Cook and a 34-year-old John Sutton is playing his best footy again.
A key part is some of the form of key players and Seibold’s focus on empowering his leaders. Sutton is one of three members of the South Sydney leadership group, along with Inglis and Sam Burgess.
One of Seibold’s mantras is: “If you empower your senior players that leads to them having extra responsibility. When you give someone extra responsibility you make them accountable.”
Sutton has been very accountable for his actions both on the field this year and off it, too.
So the Bunnies have been great on the field. But what I also love is that Seibold has developed some wonderful personal relationships with his players. I have heard plenty of stories about his genuine commitment and compassion shown towards the players under his care.
There is no better example of this than his treatment of Robbie Farah.
Farah found himself in an interesting predicament this year. Seibold reportedly made it very clear to him that Cook would be the Bunnies’ 80-minute hooker this year, but he continued to have conversations with Farah, even while he was playing in the Intrust Super Premiership, reminding him what a quality footballer he was and reminding him that he was still capable of playing first grade.
The story goes that when Farah came to Seibold to ask for a release, Seibold encouraged him to take his opportunity, when others may have decided to keep Farah on standby, just in case there were injuries.
For Seibold, he says he has thoroughly enjoyed his first season at the club and describes the Australian-wide support the Bunnies have as “surreal”.
He has learnt how attached the club is to the community and, in return, how attached the community is to the club.
My beloved Eels may be out of the running for the finals, so I’m pleased I have Seibold’s permission to jump on board the Bunnies bandwagon – I know it will be a crowded one.