Just a few days ago, Sam Burgess reached out to Rabbitohs management to express concerns about the team’s evolution under the guidance of coach Jason Demetriou. By the time Monday evening rolled around, word was out that he and fellow assistant coach, John Morris, were taking steps to hold Demetriou accountable for perceived preferential treatment of stars Latrell Mitchell and Cody Walker.
Burgess decided to exit Souths‘ Maroubra headquarters on Wednesday via the main entrance rather than heading to the training field with Morris.
According to chief executive Blake Solly, who spoke on Wednesday evening, “At no stage in his playing or coaching career at this club has Sam ever been undermined.” He continued, “Rather, he has been shown some of the most extraordinary support a club could ever provide a player or coach.”
There were whispers that Burgess had chosen to part ways with the club, leaving them teetering on the edge of finals elimination, in order to prepare for the birth of his child with Lucy Graham and to step into his new role as head coach of Super League club, Warrington next year. However, these were just smokescreens. Burgess left, collecting the $700,000 owed to him by the club due to injury retirement, as he felt he was being sidelined.
In the words of Solly, the departure did not involve any feelings of being let down by the club. In fact, the individuals Burgess believed were undermining him were present at the two-hour meeting that concluded with his emotional departure through a swarm of media to Graham’s BMW.
There has been tension surrounding the handling of players Walker and Mitchell, which Burgess believes Demetriou has exacerbated through lack of agreement, according to sources familiar with the situation. However, Burgess has chosen to remain silent on the matter. The strain was clear when Demetriou, speaking about his interactions with Morris and Burgess, chose only to refer to his relationship with Morris, insisting, “I have no issue, have never had an issue with John Morris…Let’s just make that very clear.”
Tuesday saw the news of the impending departure of Burgess and Morris after a discussion with co-owner, Russell Crowe. When Burgess arrived for his early morning meeting with Demetriou, Morris, Solly, chairman Nick Pappas and some board members the next day, there were attempts to make amends but Burgess felt the situation had become untenable.
Solly detailed how the meeting unfolded, “The question was asked of everyone: is that the preference to get on and work together for the rest of the season?” He described how Morris agreed to continue, but that the conclusion was that Burgess had “other priorities to work on.”
While Wests Tigers-bound assistant coach Morris was willing to say whatever was necessary to stay with the team until season’s end, Burgess was not going to pretend that all was well when he felt so strongly about an issue.
As of two weeks ago, when rumours of Burgess’ discontent under Demetriou’s leadership emerged, Solly was denying any such rumours. When later challenged by a defeat to the Knights and a packed Newcastle crowd which jeopardised their promising season, there was no avoiding the issue which had been simmering in the background for months.
Burgess’ principal objection is not with Mitchell but rather the club culture that has allowed an unrealistic expectation of what it takes to be a premier team to develop. After Mitchell’s unpleasant departure from Sydney Roosters in 2019, an environment was created under Wayne Bennett‘s South Sydney tenure to keep Mitchell passionate about the game. This was replicated by Demetriou, which whilst perceived as astute management at first, has been criticised as weak leadership as the team’s performance dipped.
South Sydney decision-makers, requesting anonymity due to the issue’s sensitiveness, are getting ready for a difficult discussion with Mitchell. This conversation is likely to be held after the season finishes, due to fears of the potential impact on their precarious position in the Premiership. This hesitancy only serves to emphasise the narrative that Mitchell exerts undue influence over the club, leaving many walking on eggshells.
Anonymous team insiders have said that there has been an increase in directness from Demetriou towards Walker. This allegedly began after a lacklustre win against the Tigers in Tamworth and culminated with Walker lashing out at the coach at the final training session last week.
When asked about this, Demetriou responded with a question, “One minute we’re saying we’re too soft on them and they’re running the club and the next minute I’m falling out with everyone. So which one is it?”
Demetriou also ensured that Tom Burgess, Sam’s brother, was unfazed by the older Burgess’s departure by speaking to him before training. From the side-lines, club legend Mario Fenech watched as the Rabbitohs took part in a training session that contradicted the reported unhappy atmosphere of the club.
Fast forwarding to Wednesday afternoon; South Sydney‘s biggest names were posing for a Channel Nine promotional shoot for a finals series they might not feature in. The players later rushed to the Hordern Pavilion to watch the Nikita Tszyu-Jack Brubaker fight, an event managed by Mitchell and Walker’s management company. The result of that fight paled in comparison to the tensions they had just left at the club.