Demetriou takes long road to NRL's summit

·5-min read

The recipe for Jason Demetriou to fail in his first year as South Sydney's head coach had all the right ingredients.

Halfback Adam Reynolds had left, Latrell Mitchell was struggling to stay fit, and it is rare that any coach has succeeded when filling the void left by Wayne Bennett.

But on Saturday against Penrith at Accor Stadium, Demetriou will be aiming to cook up a victory in the Rabbitohs' fifth straight preliminary final.

In a sign of how volatile coaching can be, there have been nine head coaching changes since February 2020 when the Rabbitohs announced their plans for life after Bennett.

Demetriou, however, has dealt comfortably with the heat in the NRL kitchen.

"He's served a great apprenticeship," Rabbitohs chief executive Blake Solly said.

"He's a keen student of the game and having taken that risk to go over to the UK to further his playing career, that tells you he has the resilience and resolve to be a strong head coach."

Unable to crack it in the NRL as a playmaker more than 20 years ago, Demetriou, now 46, sent DVDs of his playing highlights to every club in England.

Only the now-defunct second division side Lancashire Lynx got back to him.

He hopped on a plane to the northern hemisphere and spent the next 10 years in the UK, winning a second division title with Widnes while playing at centre with a broken tibia.

In 2004 he joined Super League side Wakefield but it was not long before they were fighting for survival.

At the start of the 2006 season Demetriou had been replaced as captain by the club's new import Monty Betham and Wakefield were in danger of getting relegated.

"You would have never known (he'd lost the captaincy) because he was just a natural leader," Betham said.

"He was so disarming and vibrant through all that, he wasn't the type to ever have a down day."

The scenario was simple for Wakefield: beat bitter rivals Castleford to guarantee their Super League survival.

Losing would have impacted finances to the tune of $A1.7 million, and would have in all likelihood meant they were reduced to being a part-time team.

Trailing and in need of something special, Demetriou broke through four tackles to score and swing the result in Wakefield's favour.

"We needed a spark and his try deflated them," former Wakefield teammate Michael Korkidas said.

"There's a photo of him in the club scoring that try and his facial expression when he celebrated summed him up. Resilience, drive, passion - all of that in one photo.

"He was never the biggest, fittest or strongest, but he had that desire inside of him."

After being shortlisted for the Super League's Man of Steel award in 2007 alongside Trent Barrett and James Roby - arguably the greatest British player of the last 20 years - Demetriou's playing career began to wind down.

Demetriou had one last dance when he took a player-coach role with third division side Keighley Cougars in 2011.

He won promotion in his first season before luring Korkidas and another former Wakefield teammate, Sam Obst, to Cougar Park.

"JD (Demetriou) used to have to mow the field on the roller and mark the lines in the freezing cold," Obst said.

"Now he's probably sitting in the coaches' box surrounded by fresh blueberries and whatever else he wants.

"That Keighley job was a really good grounding for him as a coach because he didn't have any resources.

"He was always making sure guys were getting paid, and on time. That says a lot about JD as a person."

Korkidas and Obst were Demetriou's old teammates, so how easy was it for the man they once shed blood with to critique the side they all played in as their coach?

"He was happy to give - and I'll use an English term here - a bollocking," Korkidas said.

"He used to do video sessions and he'd be the first guy to say when he stuffed something up too.

"He struck that balance (of being friends and a coach) really well."

Obst is in a unique position.

He saw the evolution of Demetriou from teammate at Wakefield, to player-coach at Keighley and then to head coach when he followed his now coach back to Australia in 2013 with Cairns-based Queensland Cup side the Northern Pride.

Demetriou produced a dossier for club officials to show how they could be successful, and within two years they won two minor premierships, a grand final and an interstate championship.

"It was his honesty which made you want to play for him and that drives good teams," Obst said.

"He never blew smoke up anyone's arse - that's why players respond to him so well."

More success followed as an assistant with North Queensland's premiership win in 2015, with Demetriou steering Illawarra to a NSW Cup title the following year.

Bennett recruited him to Souths after spending time with him at Brisbane.

In turn Demetriou brought former Illawarra players Taane Milne and Hame Sele, and assistant coach Ben Hornby, with him to the Rabbitohs.

"He's got a spray in him and I've definitely felt a few of them," Milne said.

"But he's a good fella and he cares about you a lot.

"It is a massive rap to him for us to get a prelim in his first year and we are only going to get better."