Matt Encarnacion, Western Sydney Correspondent
In case you haven't heard, a certain ex-Bulldog is returning to Sydney for the season-opener between Canterbury-Bankstown and Brisbane on Friday night.
Predictably – or at least publicly – the Bulldogs are portraying a care factor of zero for Ben Barba's first NRL game against his old club.
But, given the inordinate amount of issues Barba created at the club last season, they know their loyal fan base does care.
"Fans are fans," Bulldogs coach Des Hasler shrugged on Tuesday morning. "You'll have to get there on Friday night to have a look."
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We all know how much of a passionate, unforgiving bunch those Bulldogs enthusiasts are. We don't have to go far to remember the unpleasant welcoming they gave to Sonny Bill Williams last season. They are renowned as being among the most vocal supporters in the NRL, a noble characteristic that is notably never lost among the players.
Asked whether Barba would receive a hostile reception on Friday night, second-rower Josh Jackson had this to say: "I dare say he will. I think Doggies fans are pretty passionate. There's definitely no hostility here amongst the playing group. Ben did what was best for him and his family. Hopefully it works out for him."
A season-opener doesn't get much bigger for the Bulldogs than a grudge match against one of its former stars, but we should all know that Hasler is a more shrewd than most. You don't coach a team to four grand finals and win two premierships just by pumping a team up for arguably the biggest game of the season.
"Look, obviously it's going to be a great build-up. [It's] great for the fans, great for the game," he said.
"Obviously they've put the Thursday night with Souths and the Roosters. And naturally enough, there's a little bit of hype around the Broncos-Canterbury game given the changes of both sides.
"But at the end of the day I think it matters little to what the aspirations of the players are about. You're going to ask about Ben Barba, and obviously wherever Ben Barba plays, he's going to be a danger.
"But they've got some pretty handy players. They've got a State of Origin back row [in Sam] Thaiday, [Matt] Gillett and [Alex] Glenn, and another outstanding player in [Josh] Hoffman, who's a New Zealand fullback...
"... At the end of the day, you media build it up, make it interesting, and the boys will get out there and play and see how it goes."
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According to Jackson, the team has been well-versed in limiting Barba's impact by containing their forward pack.
"That question's been asked a lot. [And] I guess it's the old cliche: you don't really focus on one player. Obviously he's a quality player Benny, he can do a lot of damage to your team," Jackson said.
"But they've got a lot of quality in that team, across the park. Obviously we've just got to start with the forwards and stopping their go-forward. World class players like Sam Thaiday and Corey Parker and blokes like that. If you don't stop those blokes, that gives Benny and Josh Hoffman and blokes like that a lot of room at the back and a lot of time. We've got to start with the go-forward."
And if they do that, the Bulldogs might just succeed in keeping Barba out of the headlines for a little while at least.
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