South Sydney coach Michael Maguire was pleased with the spirit shown by his injury-ravaged team in a narrow 22-16 loss to the fourth-placed Parramatta Eels in their final game of 2017 and believes with some troops either arriving or returning next year his side are well-placed to become a force once again in 2018.
A 64-6 blowout last week in Melbourne notwithstanding, Souths have shown some solid form over the back end of the season, winning three straight leading into the Storm game and running the Eels very close despite a massive chunk of their salary cap sitting on the sidelines.
While Souths have missed star fullback Greg Inglis since he suffered a season-ending knee injury way back in Round 1, the list of unavailables for Round 26 was startling.
Halfback Adam Reynolds (ankle) and centre Aaron Gray (hip) plus key forwards Sam Burgess and Angus Crichton (both ill) all pulled out during the week. Fullback Alex Johnston and centre Hymel Hunt were already on the injured list.
Maguire praised the turnaround from the week before, especially given the raft of late changes and number of inexperienced players in the game-day 17.
"It was pretty hard to take last week but I thought with the number of changes that happened over the last 24 hours I'm really pleased the boys put in a strong performance out there," Maguire said.
Regular No.9 Damien Cook had just a single session training at fullback before being asked to play there on game day, putting in a very strong performance with a try assist, a line break, six tackle busts and 165 metres.
"We had quite a number of changes. Unfortunately Angus Crichton pulled out [Friday] morning just through sickness, we had a virus go through the organisation. Sam [Burgess] didn't train all week," Maguire said.
"It was a week we had to lock down and I thought the boys came out and turned last week around. It was a tough one for us last week but I thought our young guys that came in performed for us.
"I've been really pleased where we've come as an organisation just for the fact we've blooded a number of our younger boys, the future's looking very strong for us moving forward. Young Tyrell [Fuimaono], Cam Murray, Jenko (Robert Jennings), we've had a number of young kids really perform over this last month and our senior boys have come together to make sure we've got a strong culture as a club.
"We've got to take that forward now. We're a club that the expectation is we're playing finals and unfortunately this year we're not so it's up to us to turn that around."
Looking ahead to next season, with Inglis back on deck and Maroons star Dane Gagai arriving from Newcastle, Maguire found cause for optimism.
"We get Greg back, that's a pretty big bonus for us. We've got Dane Gagai coming to the club. There's two really good players coming into our team. The growth of the younger boys we'll be able to take forward will strengthen where we are as a team," Maguire added.
"Alex Johnston showed [this year] what he can do at fullback which will give us a few options there. Greg will come back and make sure he's ready to go in whatever position he plays. We've got a lot of options. A fair bit of strike on our edges. Braidon Burns got a bit of experience there, Robert Jennings came in.
"Young Tyrell performed well in the centres but he's definitely a back-rower. The twins [George and Tom Burgess] definitely found their way at the back end of the season. That's something we've been working hard for.
"If they keep that form we've got a really good core of players we can take into 2018."