Inside the bubble with the South Sydney Rabbitohs

Damien Cook of the Rabbitohs makes a break against the Panthers. Chris Hyde/Getty Images

Damien Cook has survived and thrived in some of rugby league's toughest arenas, but the 30-year-old does not hesitate to highlight one of his most testing battles, which is unfolding on a nightly basis in his family apartment, within the Rabbitohs hub at the Mercure on the Gold Coast.

"My daughter listens to a certain type of music, that she falls asleep to. I've had to get used to sleeping to that as well, and it's almost impossible," Cook told ESPN.

As of the 14th of July, the NRL gained exclusive use of three hotels in Brisbane, the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast, with players and staffers spending 14 days in managed quarantine before being granted permission to roam freely around the various facilities.

Wayne Bennett and his Rabbitohs joined the Eels, Bulldogs, Raiders and Warriors on the glitter strip, serving a quarantine period that featured training, team meetings and various high-performance related clauses. While they were away from home, and with no clear end in sight, routines weren't entirely dissimilar to what they were used to.

According to Cook, the pandemonium of the hasty interstate relocation and the strain of being away was offset by the sense of footballing normality, and- before long- the presence of family.

"We understand why we've moved the competition up here, it's a lot safer and it's sad to see what's happening in NSW. But we're up here, and I'm glad I've now got my family with me," he says.

The NSW Origin hooker's comments reflect the type of resolve needed in such times. Taking a leaf out of Craig Bellamy's book, after the Storm coach advised his players to steel themselves to spend the remainder of the season in displacement, and not just one month as the NRL had originally flagged. In fact, Cook readily pays tribute to the Storm, who (as usual) set the benchmark, in this case for thriving in an interstate bubble.

"I think that's a big reason why Melbourne were able to win the competition last year, they did it so well. I think a lot of teams have tried to learn from that this year."

Shortly after teams arrived in Queensland, and following a delay on the granting of travel exemptions, families were permitted to join them, after serving a quarantine period of their own. And, as has been the case for many who have endured a quarantine period; cracks appeared and edges were frayed.

A truly unique situation was created for Project Apollo 2.0. Making accommodations for loved ones may have kept people together, but with it came a veritable melting pot of personalities, needs, and coping capabilities. And so the headlines followed accordingly. The NRL bubble was in the spotlight, QLD authorities were losing patience and making threats, interactions between hotel rooms were sorely testing them, James Roberts stepped onto a balcony. The list went on. Warnings were issued, and to the credit of those within the bubbles, they were heeded. As Cook observes:

"I think we're past the worst of it now. Obviously the quarantine we did at the start, then the partners and families had a pretty harsh quarantine as well. It was what needed to be done, so we all got it done, and now that we're all back together and we've moved to a different location, it's feeling a lot more like home."

The Rabbitohs are one of the teams that appear to have made the most of their bubble plight. Despite enduring the chaos of an unprecedented logistical overhaul, followed by the additional chaos of the snap QLD lockdown, which saw them stranded on the Rockhampton tarmac ahead of a later rescheduled round 20 clash with the Dragons in Rockhampton, they have mostly thrived on the field.

While questions will always be asked about lapses, defensive deficiencies, the over-reliance on trick shots etc, the reality is South Sydney have averaged more than 40 points a game since their great northern relocation. Until their hard-fought loss to the Panthers on the weekend, they had not conceded a game. Cook says motivation to perform hasn't been hard to find, despite the circumstances.

"There was a lot of talk amongst our group, that with moving the whole team up here and our families doing everything they can just to be with us- there were a lot of sacrifices made by them. It's very easy for us to come up and be with all our team mates, go to training, pretty much continuing our normal lives- they were the ones making the sacrifices- so we didn't want to waste that opportunity."

The experience, and who will handle it best, is one of the more interesting questions to emerge from this process. Most recently there have been reports of ruptures in certain team environments, caused by superior room allocations being given to star players, and not family units arguably more deserving of them. Cook is delicate in his response to a probe into whether such issues have rattled Camp Rabbitoh.

"I've gotta be careful what I say here...I might throw a few boys under the bus. No, look, it was challenging at the start. I'd been away from my family for about six weeks before I got to see them again. But being at a different location now, we've got our own room and are a bit separated, routines are in place, so it's feeling a bit more like home."

Theories abound as to who is best suited to the rigours of an extended bubble period. Is it the younger, more carefree players who are more accustomed to shrugging their shoulders and issuing a nonchalant 'whatever' to almost anything, but also quite susceptible to emotional hardship? Or the more seasoned, battle-hardened men with hundreds of games under their belts, and a greater appreciation of the broader concept of 'getting into the grind?'

Twenty-four-year-old prop Junior Tatola offers a younger man's perspective on the experience, alluding to the benefits of a 24/7 bonding session.

"Personally, I don't mind it- I just get to hang out with the boys more. A lot of us younger boys- that's what we do. There's been a lot of card games and stuff like that. We've all stayed pretty solid. I know we're all together every single day, but I think it's helped us grow and it shows on the field how tight we are."

Tight bonds and prosperous outcomes, but can they be maintained, potentially until the first week of October? According to Tatola, there's one last ace up the sleeve of the South Sydney Rabbitohs Football Club, in the form of a 71-year-old master man-manager.

"Wayne's been great to everyone actually, really supportive and helping everyone out, trying to get the team together. Organising dinners and stuff like that, to keep us all together."

Forging togetherness during a period of forced togetherness? Sounds like a Wayne Bennett masterstroke, and one that has his charges primed for a title tilt in the final year of his tenure.

The master coach and his fatherly instincts at the Rabbitohs have seemingly played a similar role to Bellamy's blunt reality checks at the Storm; steeling the troops for the battles ahead, both on and off the field.

"Especially to the younger boys who don't have family with them up here. He's very aware and has been with them a lot, and we're thriving off it, I guess."

When it comes to the younger players who are dealing with extended family absences, Bennett, assistant Jason Demetriou and co. have clearly recognised the importance of consistency in other areas, such as maintaining a normal sense of day-to-day football operations.

Much like many people have distracted themselves during lockdowns by sinking into their work from home, players in the NRL bubble have also been able to fall back into their profession. Football is, after all, an enormous part of life for these young men, and Tatola acknowledges the benefits of a rigid professional focus.

"The Rabbitohs have been really good with adapting our training schedules to how they are in Sydney, so it's much the same for a lot of us. We are probably doing sessions with even more intensity because we don't have all the usual distractions outside of footy."

In recent weeks, an easing of Queensland restrictions has seen the reintroduction of certain freedoms, such as cafes and restaurants, and- as Cook revealed- a change in accommodations.

The one regret for Tatola, as the situation has evolved?

"Now that we've moved into serviced apartments, I don't get to see the boys as much anymore, as we're all on separate floors," laments the Tongan international.

Traditionally, form, fatigue and injuries were the key factors to assess a side's hopes come finals time. That criteria has evolved in this new era, and now encompasses a new aspect- who does bubbles best?

South Sydney have a top four spot secured, points flowing and all of their big guns firing at the right time. Combine this with their apparent zen off the field- for both young and old- and they would appear as well placed as anyone else at the pointy end of the table.

But as the NRL races toward yet another heavily adjusted season climax, there's only one prize that truly validates the effective handling of the 2021 situation. The bubble will inevitably burst for 15 teams, irrespective of whether or not they've thrived within it. For Souths, the proof will either be in the proverbial pudding come grand final day, or it won't.