Greg Prichard, NRL.com
The Bulldogs were swimming against the tide all season – and in the end the tide finally took them out to sea in the first week of the finals. Too much went against them and not enough went right for them. They had too many injuries, too many suspensions, not nearly enough consistency and the dramas surrounding star player Ben Barba were a massive negative. At the end of the day, it was unrealistic to think the Bulldogs could have gone deep into the finals. They started as favourites in their elimination game against the Knights, but were dominated by a team that was switched on while the Bulldogs were all over the place. Now, the Bulldogs have got to go away, lick their wounds and hopefully come back strong again in 2014.
But when they do come back, it will be without Barba, who obtained a release from the club for family reasons and has joined the Broncos. Centre Josh Morris was an adequate fill-in for Barba when he was out towards the end of the regular season, but he doesn't appeal as the long-term answer. Switching Morris meant you had a reliable fullback, but were missing a star centre. They need to find a genuine fullback.
Barba missed the first three games of the season to deal with issues that saw him attend a rehabilitation centre, and late in the season he missed five games – from Rounds 21 to 25 – with an ankle injury. Bringing him back after that was a gamble that failed. There was a tiny spark from Barba in the last-round loss to the Broncos and even less against the Knights before his season finally ended when he left the field with a recurrence of the ankle injury early in the second half.
The bottom line is that Barba wasn't remotely the same player this season as he was last year, when he was a sensational X-factor in attack, and so the Bulldogs weren't the same threat.
The Bulldogs had problems with their big forwards as well. James Graham and Sam Kasiano each missed the first seven rounds, through suspension and injury respectively, and Frank Pritchard missed the first three through injury. Pritchard also missed Rounds 24 and 25 through suspension, and Kasiano missed five more games through injury during the second half of the season. Tony Williams, nicknamed ‘T-Rex’ due to his enormous size and ability to wreck the defence, was signed from the Sea Eagles as a gamebreaker but didn't prove to be the dominant force he was expected to be. Graham was the standout among the big men. He didn't miss a game after returning and was a constant force in defence and attack.
Even the normally mild-mannered centre Krisnan Inu was suspended twice for a total of seven matches during the season for doing stupid things in tackles, including a dangerous throw on Rabbitohs star Greg Inglis that netted him five games. It was just a disjointed season in which the Bulldogs never really got on a roll. They were under the pump after losing four of their first five games of the season. They recovered to win seven of their next eight, but it still wasn't totally convincing. Then an up-and-down run of form began at the worst possible time – when you're trying to get into gear for the finals. They lost two in a row, then won three straight and then went loss, win, loss, win, loss, loss over the last six rounds. Then the Knights finally put them out of their misery.
Some clubs would be delighted just to make the finals, but the Bulldogs are not one of those clubs, particularly when they are coming off a grand final appearance the previous season. They expected much more, so they are naturally very disappointed.
Where They Excelled: Five-eighth Josh Reynolds was their biggest attacking force. He got things going when others couldn't, and played well enough to make the NSW team as a bench player in the State of Origin series. Reynolds is a triple threat. He's a terrific runner of the ball, he's got a great pass and he supports the big forwards in the hope of collecting an offload.
Winger Sam Perrett deserves praise as well. He had always been a solid player, but had only scored 50 tries in 160 games before this season. This was a breakout season for him, with 18 tries in 25 games.
Where They Struggled: They just couldn't reproduce what they did last season. Their attack in 2012 revolved heavily around Barba's dazzling ability to make breaks out of nothing, and from way back in the field when the defence should have been able to hem him in. He wasn't the same force this season, so the Bulldogs couldn't be the same force.
But it wasn't just Barba. Injuries, suspensions and Williams' struggle for form meant they just couldn't get that consistent roll going up front, either.
Missing In Action: Kasiano missed 12 games, Barba eight, Graham seven, Inu seven and Pritchard six. That's five star players missing for a total of 40 games. Then, when players come back from extended periods out they have got to find their match fitness and/or rhythm again.
The constant ins and outs contributed to the disjointed nature of the team's play and the inconsistent results.
Turning Point: The 26-16 loss to the Titans in Round 22 put the writing on the wall. The Bulldogs' big men had put together an explosive final 20 minutes as the team came from 20-8 down to beat the Dragons 39-20 the week before, and everyone in the team felt pretty good about themselves after that, but they couldn't back it up.
After that, you just had the feeling the Bulldogs were going to come up short this season.
Best Games: That win over the Dragons was pretty exciting. To come from 12 points down and outscore the opposition 31-0 in the last 20 minutes is very impressive under any circumstances, but it was a win that came with a warning that the Bulldogs hadn't done it for anything like the full 80 minutes and needed to start doing that. Unfortunately, they didn't heed that warning.
Wins over the Sharks, 24-8 in Round 7, and the Sea Eagles, 32-30 in Round 14, deserve a mention as well.
Worst Games: Their 38-0 loss to the Roosters in Round 6 was obviously bad, but considering the occasion it is fair to say the Bulldogs saved their worst for last with their loss to the Knights in Week One of the finals. They were outplayed in all the key areas and departed from the competition with not a bang, but a whimper.
Hold Your Head High: If you don't like James Graham as a footballer then you don't appreciate someone who is prepared to put his body on the line against the biggest men on the field. Constantly. Graham can be a battering ram, or he can display subtle skills. He can be a numbers man in defence, just climbing in with one or two others to bring an opponent to a halt, or he can crunch hit. He lined up Sea Eagles second-rower Anthony Watmough for an absolute cracker in their Round 14 clash, driving in from the side and at the hip region. It hurt Watmough, and he's tough. It hurt just watching it.
Conclusion: The Bulldog were off the pace this season, and the reasons why were mostly obvious and have been clearly identified. The Barba situation was a big distraction, but plenty else went wrong as well. They have got to learn the lessons from this season and go into next season with the aim of establishing the consistency that was missing in 2013. That's what the best teams do. But, in the meantime, they have to solve the fullback problem. That's their biggest issue.
Losses: 11 (plus Finals loss)
Position (after 26 rounds): 6th
Position (after Finals exit): 7th
Home Record: 6-6
Away Record: 7-5
Longest Winning Streak: 4 (rounds 11-14)
Longest Losing Streak: 4 (rounds 3-6)
Players Used: 27
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 87 (fifth most)
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 74 (seventh fewest)