This article first appeared on theaustralian.com.au.
Amid the flux at South Sydney over the off-season, the most significant change may have come within the Burgess household. Sam Burgess’s season was symptomatic of a Rabbitohs outfit that failed to reach any great heights in 2016.
They started well and finished better, but the period in between was one of abject disappointment. Burgess too flittered without reaching the levels he achieved prior to his aborted stint in rugby union.
Yet the off-season brought with it a daughter and a new source of motivation.
“Well what I think it does is change your view on a lot of things,” Burgess said.
“Will it make me a better player? Who knows but it has probably given me extra motivation in a few areas. Whether I needed that or not, who knows.
“I have always found myself quite motivated anyway. But it’s something greater than the game. You have your daughter there and then your wife.
“It’s a nice thing to get your mind off football as well. It is a real feeling. Football, sometimes you’re right in the middle of it. It’s nice to come home and give your little daughter a cuddle.”
There were times last year when everyone at Souths needed a cuddle. A club which has been steeped in recent success endured a frustrating time on and off the field.
The changes have been significant. The coaching staff was overhauled and new faces were introduced. Hooker Robbie Farah was the most significant but the club went on a spending spree as they targeted some of the game’s elite young players, centres Robert Jennings and Tyrell Fuimaono among them.
Jennings has a shot at playing in the centres when they open the season, although he needs to play well against St George Illawarra in tomorrow night’s Charity Shield at ANZ Stadium.
“It stung everybody,” head of football Shane Richardson said.
“But being stung is irrelevant. It’s what you do about it, how you respond to it. Everybody looks for the big things that went wrong in the club. It wasn’t the big things.
“It was all the little things that add up to the challenge of finishing 12th. We spent a lot of time last year and went through a lot of heartache to get it right.
“It was a tough year last year for Madge (coach Michael Maguire) and all of us. Losing nine straight was a world Madge had never lived in. Fortunately it was a world I have lived in many times.
“So it wasn’t a matter of panicking. It was a matter of saying how are we going to get out of this and what plans are we putting in place to do it.
“We had a plan we set in April-May. We were set and ready from then for where we were going. That doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt. But we still felt we were preparing to build again.
“Not rebuilding. Building again.”
The signs have been promising in the pre-season. Captain Greg Inglis signed a contract extension, ending once-and-for-all the conjecture over whether he would return to Brisbane. Inglis looks as fresh as ever, so too Burgess.
“GI is in the best space I have ever seen him,” Richardson said.
“He is turning into a great leader working with a great leadership team. He is going to finish his career with us. The important thing across the board was stability.
“It wasn’t just with GI. It was with Adam Reynolds, it was with the Burgess brothers, it was with Madge, it was with Damien Cook and many others.
“What we tried to do with the coaching staff was put people on long-term contract so they could see we were committed. We have stabilised the club.
“Those contracts to key players and staff are crucial. We have fixed costs. We know what the costs are which is important in the football world of escalating costs.
“We have minimised the distractions. Hopefully that is what stability does.”
Richardson and Maguire spent part of their off-season on a fact-finding mission in America, visiting the Atlanta Falcons and the New York Giants. They also visited the NFL and advertising giant RGA, their emphasis on leadership and team building.
“It wasn’t about going to see what the gyms were like,” Richardson said.
“We wanted to get in with the key decision-makers and talk to them about leadership. We met with the CEOs of big organisations, we spent a lot of time talking to key people and we had a look at how sports businesses and businesses generally are successfully run.
“We talked to them about their use of data, their use of information, the way they managed their leadership of their teams, they way they managed up with boards and owners.
“We spent a lot of time with their player wellbeing people because they do it at such a high level with so many athletes who are from similar backgrounds to what rugby league players are.
“We didn’t actually see any training sessions. In Madge’s case, he has a insatiable thirst for knowledge. He is always sending things through to me, we’re always talking about things.
“I always thought he was the guy to lead the club forward and one of the reasons is that unbelievable thirst for knowledge.”
Maguire had a troubling season last year but he wasn’t alone. Richardson’s faith in the coach never wavered, nor his confidence in Burgess to regain his best.
“Sam has had a great pre-season as the whole team has,” Richardson said.
“Last year his pre-season was disrupted for everyone. At the end of the day it was a rush coming into the season for him. He is a great leader. He is important to us.
“The most important thing to Sam is how passionate he is for the team and the club. I saw him in England when I wasn’t at Souths and he was so passionate about wanting to come back and be involved again.
“One thing about Sam is it is never about effort. I just think he is in a great space in his personal life, he is in a great shape with training. I think the whole team is in a good space and he is an integral part of it.”
Burgess certainly appears refreshed and reinvigorated. Speaking at the launch of Foxports League this week, he revealed he had returned to training ahead of schedule such is his desire to tap into the best football again.
“I wasn’t tidy in my game (last year),” Burgess said.
“Finding my feet — I wouldn’t put it that way. We didn’t have our best year and I was part of that year. It’s a good way to judge me finishing where we did on the ladder.
“It’s fair. I was always very focused on football. The actual fact is I didn’t have a huge pre-season at the beginning of last year. This year I have given myself a good opportunity.
“The club is in a better spot than where they were 12 months ago. It’s not a better place to be around. It is always a good place to be around. We’re in better shape.
“It just looks better.”