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1-17 Souths signings: The gambles, bargains and local lads in Rabbitohs rise

From Bennett to Benji to Adam Reynolds – the Bunny soon to be a Bronco for reasons still complicated and confusing several months after the fact – the 2021 decider is the finish line for more than a few at Redfern.

The Rabbitohs departees make for compelling storylines this week, but so too is how it all started.

Rabbitohs head of football Mark Ellison has been in red and green for much longer, approaching four decades at South Sydney as a player, coach or administrator.

Kicking off grand final week from Surfers Paradise, Ellison talks NRL.com through a grand final 1-17 and the stories behind each player's rise as a Rabbitoh.

From the minimum wage deals and match payments, KFC blowouts and knockbacks, to the star signings and scouting of one Souths favourite as a four-year-old, this is how the Rabbitohs line-up came to be.

The Redfern roster 

1 Blake Taaffe

God bless the Bears. Then-North Sydney under 20s coach Willie Leyshon rang old mate Mark O'Meley in 2018 when he was hunting for a half, with Ogre's endorsement sealing Taaffe's move from the Central Coast - where he had played in the Roosters system. Taaffe was initially signed on little more than a $300 match payments deal with insurance on the side. Souths signed him by the year's end and now being lined up as their long-term No.7.

Ellison: "There's the connection to Kevin Longbottom [the goalkicking Souths great counted among Taafe's extended family] obviously, I played with Bruce Longbottom and knew of Blake's family, but didn't know them when he was a kid.

"We do now though and they were able to be there in Brisbane for his debut jersey presentation which his uncle and Souths Juniors president Keith McGraw did. Real rugby league pedigree."

2 Alex Johnston

Was resigned to leaving Redfern last year after being told salary cap pressure meant Souths couldn't offer him a deal. His eventual extension and six-figure sacrifice sparked changeroom celebrations from teammates after Johnston seriously weighed up a move to Melbourne. Has been pursued by the Tigers and Roosters among others over the years but never wavered from South Sydney.

 
 
 
 
 
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Ellison: "Always highly regarded from when he came through Harold Matts in the Souths system. By the time he was finishing school we had him signed long-term alongside Dylan Walker. Born and bred with Souths and very glad he's still here."

3 Dane Gagai

Brought down from Newcastle by Michael Maguire midway through 2017 on a lucrative four-year deal that made Gagai the game's highest paid centre. It all comes full circle next year, Gagai returning to the Hunter in 2022. Left the Knights after three wooden spoons, now plays his first grand final after a decade and 225 NRL games, 19 Origins and seven Tests.

Ellison: "A Michael Maguire signing, and exactly what we wanted and needed at that time. Absolutely nails his effort areas - you watch his kick-chase - and has set that standard ever since he arrived for our outside backs." 

4 Campbell Graham

Debuted on 12 hours' notice under Maguire at the end of 2017 while studying for his HSC and hasn't looked back since. Always tied up on long-term deals by the club, re-signing last season until the end of 2024 – only Cameron Murray is tied up longer.

Ellison: "Stood out in our Harold Matts and kept improving to the point we were willing to pick him out of school for an NRL debut at the SCG. Not just anyone can do that. Went to Marcellin College in Randwick and just South Sydney through and through."

5 Jaxson Paulo

Picked up as a mid-season 2019 signing from the Gold Coast on a development deal. Rabbitohs scouts had travelled north to get a look at Titans teammate Jayden Campbell earlier in the piece but came home impressed with Keebra Park graduate Paulo too.

Ellison: "We went up to watch Preston Campbell's young bloke and Jaxson was there too. But the clincher was being sent some footage of him, I just thought 'this kid's got talent'. We've since extended him off his development contract and he's part of that 2019 Jersey Flegg team that we're building around."

6 Cody Walker

Signed what was in 2014 the NRL's second tier wage of $60,000 from Melbourne, with the Storm's refusal to release a 24-year-old Walker midway through the year briefly putting his move to Redfern in jeopardy. Now has his heart set on first a premiership, then finishing his career in red and green with extension talks to resume in the off-season.

Ellison: "Back end of 2014 we first started looking at him. We loved that he was doing things you don't see on a footy field, the question was whether it would translate to NRL. We took the chance that he would and he's repaid us in bucket loads."

Finals focus: Walker stars as Rabbitohs book grand final spot

7 Adam Reynolds

The biggest contract story of 2021 and one of Redfern's finest careers started well over a decade ago with an equally quiet offer. As a local teen Reynolds was always touted for big things, Souths were unperturbed by an ACL rupture suffered in March 2011, so much so they extended him by a year two days after his season was ended. Cooper Cronk and Daly Cherry-Evans were among the big names linked to the Rabbitohs when Chris Sandow joined Parramatta, but Reynolds was given the inside lane, made the most of it and then some.

Ellison: "He came through all the grades and was coached by Craig Coleman at SG Ball. Madge asked who would be our halfback when Sandow took the Eels offer. He ran with Reynolds and that was a big call in retrospect, he hadn't seen that much of him but trusted Adam and the club's judgement."

8 Mark Nicholls

Set to have a contract extension locked in after the season and few more popular players among his teammates. Has flourished under Wayne Bennett after being offered a one-year, minimum wage lifeline by Anthony Seibold for 2018 after being cut loose by Melbourne.

Ellison: "Great workrate and one of Wayne's favourites. He's been given a chance to show some skill and he's gone to another level. Great to see him captain the club a month ago."

9 Damien Cook

Figured his NRL career wasn't to be no less than three times when he was cut loose by the Panthers (2011) and Dragons (2014) and then went deep into Canterbury's 2015 season without an offer from the Dogs or anyone else. Michael Maguire was the first to weigh in as Cook starred late in the year, Souths' offer endured when the Bulldogs weighed in with their own too late in the piece.

Ellison: "Played a lot of reserve-grade football and is now the NSW and Australian hooker. Moved around the field a lot early, I think we might have used him at fullback once but we made it clear dummy-half was his position."

Razzle dazzle Rabbitohs produce something out of nothing

10 Tevita Tatola

Was crowned the 2015 NYC player of the year while coming through with the Tigers but a foot injury saw him blow out on KFC and battling to keep his career alive two years later. Then-Rabbitohs coach Willie Peters had coached the big Tongan at the Tigers and recommended Tatola for a 2018 off-season train and trial contract. By summer's end Seibold offered him a one-year deal and a round one debut.

Ellison: "I only coached my son's Mascot team for one year, but I did get to see Tevita playing against us in under 17s. He has put in a lot of work to get where he is, turning a lot of size into muscle. Still has so much improvement in him which is the really exciting thing."

11 Keaon Koloamatangi

Came through in the same Mascot Jets team as Murray, winning everything in sight. Like Murray and Graham, the Rabbitohs have long made sure rival outfits haven't got a sniff, extending Koloamatangi well before he comes off-contract. Signed until the end of 2023.

 
 
 
 
 
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Ellison: "Always had the talent and his manager Tyran Smith has really helped him crack on around 17/18, a shoulder injury in SG Ball probably woke him up to the hard work he needed to do. Hasn't looked back since." 

12 Jaydn Su'A

Su'A was originally chased by Seibold in 2019 but found himself stuck in reserve grade for six weeks when they combined at the Broncos last year. Bennett in turn offered him a way out, on a significantly cheaper deal than the Rabbitohs original offer. The move has paid off handsomely though with Su'A playing four Origins, landing a bumper Dragons offer for next year and lining up in Sunday's decider.

Ellison: "Came down on the advice of Wayne and Jason [Demetriou] and picked himself up out of reserve grade not that long ago. Has now established himself as a regular first-grader and Origin player."

The 2021 Dally M Team of the Year

13 Cameron Murray

Contracted long-term at Souths until the end of 2025, a significant date considering it falls between rugby world cups. Murray met with Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson as a teen with an offer tabled, but Ellison has been sizing him up from the first day he stepped onto a footy field. The Rabbitohs know they have an absolutely elite player, on and off the field.

Ellison: "I watched him play his first game of footy at four and a half years old, he played in the under 6's with my son. They only let him play half a game because of his size, but even then he just tackled everything and didn't stop smiling. He'll captain the club one day."

 
 
 
 
 
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14 Benji Marshall

Knocked back big money to join premiership-winning teammate Brett Hodgson at Hull FC and then was knocked back himself when Canterbury's interest in a one-year deal went cold. The Bulldogs have since finished with the wooden spoon, Marshall is eyeing a fairytale finish.

Ellison: "What more can you say? You say 'Benji' and everyone knows who you're talking about. The biggest thing in our recruitment is 'do they want to play for Souths?' There was no doubt about that at all when Benji rang Wayne off his own bat."

Marshall mesmerises, Koloamatangi scores

15 Jacob Host

Won the 2016 State championship under Jason Demetriou with Illawarra Cutters as a 19-year-old and didn't think long when the soon-to-be Souths assistant called last year. Anthony Griffin made a late play to keep him at the Dragons when he started in October but by then Host was on his way to Redfern.

Ellison: "He wasn't really seeing any game time last year and that shocked us a bit. We had a spot open with John Sutton retiring and Hosty's really bought in and made that his own."

16 Tom Burgess

The last of the Burgess brothers remaining at the Rabbitohs and the last to arrive from England in 2013, knocking back a big offer from Maguire's old club Wigan to reunite with Sam, Luke and George. After his first month at the club Tom had to shave his head because Souths coaching staff couldn't tell the twins apart.

Ellison: "Probably in the best form of his career at the moment. He knows his game a bit more and his body's hardened a little bit, he's really maturing and coming into his own in the middle. Has been terrific for us."

17 Jai Arrow

Agreed to join the Rabbitohs on Christmas eve 2019, playing out a final year with the Gold Coast after plumping for South Sydney's reported $800,000-a-year deal. Also met with now-Tigers coach Michael Maguire and fielded a competitive offer from the joint-venture, but Bennett's influence having coached him at the Broncos won out.

Ellison: "Jai I'd say was based on his relationship with Wayne from when they were at Brisbane. We were hopeful, but certainly not overly confident of landing him and Jai's delivered since."