If this is to be the year South Sydney win their 21st premiership, it’ll be because Latrell Mitchell, Cody Walker and Damien Cook get out of the way.

Not all the time, of course. It doesn’t even need to happen all that often and nor should it.

Mitchell, Walker and Cook are each among the best players in their positions and when you combine them all together it creates an attacking force that few teams in the league can hope to match.

The trio’s combination is the Rabbitohs’ greatest strength and there are very few rugby league problems that getting one of them the ball cannot solve.

But for the Rabbitohs to get over the hump, they need second-year halfback Lachlan Ilias to have the courage, confidence and skill to, every now and then when the moment calls for it, take chances of his own. Souths think he can do it and, more importantly, so does Ilias.

A man celebrates after scoring a try in a semi-final.
Ilias has endured the highs and lows of a rollercoaster rookie NRL season. (Getty Images: Jason McCawley)

“I could be more confident in taking opportunities. Maybe last year I was a little hesitant in doing some things and that’s just on me, that’s not on anybody else,” said Ilias.

“I want to be more confident to take some shortsides, or do an early kick, or put a spiral up while still staying in the process of our set and what we’re doing.

“It just comes with playing games, with experience and that sort of happened for me towards the end of the last year. I really got some confidence and I’m looking to build on that.”

It’s not an easy thing, to think a moment is your own when Mitchell, Walker and Cook are all right there and waiting. Unless you’re blessed with their ability, and few players in any position ever are, it’s an attribute that can only develop over time.

Getting his rookie season under his belt, where he replaced club legend Adam Reynolds, certainly helped Ilias in that regard.

There were the regular growing issues that almost every young half deals with in the beginning of their careers, but when the dust settled on 2022 Ilias was the first halfback in 10 years to play a preliminary final in his rookie campaign. The last guy to do it before him, funnily enough, was Reynolds himself.

The 2014 premiership winner still casts a long shadow but there’s none of the frantic comparisons that dominated last summer, which has allowed Ilias to focus solely on his football as he begins his sophomore year.

“A lot of media last year was comparing me to Reyno and what I was going to do and what I could bring to the table,” Ilias said.

“This time I can just focus on the team and on myself and I think that’s really important.

“We’re a bit calmer now, we have our connections going so we don’t need to find that anymore because we know it’s already there.”

That same sense of calm has stood out to Ilias’s teammates over the summer. So has his comfort in running the team around the park at training, especially in the absence of some of the team’s more established stars.

“He looks more calm and relaxed, which is funny to say because last year he seemed calm and relaxed and he came into the role with a lot of confidence,” said Cook.

“I felt like he jumped in and learned on the run, but this year he understands he’s one of the guys guiding the side around the park.

“I noticed his voice a lot more this year – there was a week when Cody was in Indigenous camp and he stood up on his own and that, to me, showed how much he’s grown as a player even at a young age.”

Walker has been an enormous influence on Ilias’s short career, even though the two halves play vastly different styles.

In fact, apart from coach Jason Demetriou and his family, Ilias nominates Walker as the person who’s impacted his career at the Rabbitohs the most.

“He gets you thinking about attack in a different way. If you pull the defenders apart, how will they react next time?” Ilias said.

“You have to be thinking a step ahead of them, you have to know what they’ll do next. I pick his brain about that, what he’s thinking, what we need to do to make sure everyone has their best foot forward.

“Thinking ahead, he’s helped me with that manner.”

Ilias will again lean heavily on Walker again in 2023, as any young halfback would. Nobody is expecting him to turn into Nathan Cleary overnight and that doesn’t need to happen for South Sydney to win it all.

He just needs to keep taking small steps forward. What he went through last year, the good times and the bad, will help. So will playing at the World Cup for Greece, where Ilias was thrust into a leadership role courtesy of his NRL experience.

Ilias is particularly drawing on the three finals games he played last year, especially the first two. In South Sydney’s strong wins over the Roosters and Cronulla, he played some of his best football of the year, enough to whet the appetite for a future filled with tantalising possibilities.

“We found our feet before those games and we were really feeling good about ourselves, we stuck to what works for us and ended up winning them both convincingly,” Ilias said.

“Those were two moments where I thought ‘this is what South Sydney is all about’. But it means nothing if we don’t make the grand final so we have to do better this year.”