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Mid-season review: Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs

Position after 13 rounds: 3rd
Wins: 8
Losses: 5
Byes: 0
Competition points: 16
Differential: +92

Possibly the biggest story coming into season 2012 was the recruitment of one of the NRL’s highest-profile and most-successful coaches of recent seasons – Des Hasler from Manly. And the dual premiership-winner has not disappointed so far, taking a team with relatively few stars and its fair share of injuries to within the top four at the halfway point of the season, with the second-best for-and-against record after the pacesetting Storm.

The other high-profile signing at Belmore was English import and Aiden Tolman lookalike James Graham. The two blonde props are both playing big minutes and along with the impressive Sam Kasiano, they form a formidable front-row rotation.

Josh Reynolds has also impressed, nailing down the five-eighth position, while fullback Ben Barba has made the custodian role his own – retaining the brilliance but adding consistency and reducing his errors.

Hasler looks to have added plenty of discipline to the outfit – Canterbury are currently among the best sides in key defensive categories. They have conceded the second-fewest tries (2.5 per game) and line-breaks (3.2 per game) and second-fewest offloads (9.2 per game), plus the fifth-fewest missed tackles (26.2 per game). The ’Dogs are also in the top six for all key attacking stats.

Although Reynolds and Barba were mooted as potential Origin bolters, only centre Josh Morris got the nod, with Michael Ennis also overlooked this year. But the upside for the club is a relatively stable squad through the potentially disruptive representative period; in fact the Bulldogs have used the fewest players of any side this year at just 23 (most hit are Penrith and Wests Tigers with 27).

So far Hasler looks to have his troops exactly where he wants them: in the top half of the ladder… but flying under the radar.

Are Things Going to Plan? Pretty much. No-one expected miracles of Hasler in his first year at a new club, despite his successes with Manly. The squad is comparatively young (29-year-old Dene Halatau is the elder statesman) with new players in key positions, as well as a new coach.

To be third after 13 rounds with two byes in hand and one of the best defensive records of any side is a huge credit to the work Hasler and the players have put in. Considering the side finished just outside the eight last year the fact they now likely need just six wins from their remaining 11 games to guarantee a finals berth can be considered an ultra-successful start to the season.

Also, the 2011 squad performed comparatively poorly in defence, conceding 20.4 points per game (eighth best) and a shocking 1465 running metres on average, which was the most territory surrendered each week. That is down to 1330 metres so far this year, seventh fewest and a marked improvement.

Injury Front… Pretty good... unless you count wingers!

The Bulldogs have so far experienced a crisis in their outside backs, and are currently missing two goal-kicking wingers long term. Steve Turner is out for the season with a knee injury sustained in Round 8, while Bryson Goodwin is out indefinitely after rupturing his spleen in Round 11. Winger Luke MacDougall dislocated an elbow in the same game (although his injury isn’t thought to be long term). Early season recruit Mitch Browne ruptured an anterior cruciate ligament straight after joining the club and will miss the season, while fringe first grade winger Michael Lett abruptly left the club recently to take a job in the coal mines. It all resulted in a rapid move to bring goal-kicking centre or winger Krisnan Inu across the Tasman to fill the void. (And he has been a rousing success in his two games to date.)

The Bulldogs were also without first-choice halfback Trent Hodkinson for six weeks due to a medial ligament strain, although Kris Keating stepped in admirably to fill the breach.

If Only… There are no major ‘what-ifs’ for Canterbury so far (aside from possibly the absentees in the backline) but they probably could have done without a three-game losing streak from Round 6, shortly after the Hodkinson injury. The only blot on their copybook since, in an otherwise red-hot month of football, was a sub-par home loss to the Titans. Canterbury gave away 11 penalties to two in that match against a side that had won just two from nine at that point.

Who’s Flying… The most obvious one here is fullback Ben Barba. The speedy fullback leads the club for line-breaks (12) and line-break assists (eight) and is equal with Josh Morris for average metres gained (120). He and Morris lead the way for tries (nine). Barba also has seven try assists and a huge 20 offloads. But possibly the most impressive stat is his phenomenal 69 tackle-breaks. Barba leads all comers in the NRL here, ahead of in-form Queensland and Test centre Greg Inglis (68).

Elsewhere, the forwards are motoring along. Giant youngster Sam Kasiano has really kicked on in his second year in the top grade. Along with Tolman and Graham, the three are all are averaging over 100 metres per game, with Kasiano notching a club-high 23 offloads.

Needs to Lift… As you’d expect with a team that is travelling well without a surplus of superstars, Canterbury hasn’t had a lot of passengers so far this season. As impressive as he’s been, Reynolds has proved something of a weak link in defence, missing 58 tackles so far (second in NRL behind James Maloney). His 17 errors are also a concern and could hurt come the big games. Michael Ennis continues to live up to his reputation as one of the most penalised players in the NRL – he has drawn the ire of the officials on 13 occasions, the equal most in the NRL.

Bulldogs Assistant Coach Jim Dymock tells… “The boys are believing in the systems that are in place, they have good belief in the brand of football we’re playing – the big thing for us is our defence has improved a lot this year. To win the competition you need to have good defensive structures in place.”

Dymock nominated Sam Kasiano and Josh Reynolds as two players who had stepped up in 2012.

“Reynolds… he’s only young and very green at the moment, he can be a little bit inconsistent but you can never fault his attitude or competitiveness – he brings that energy to a side that you really need; he’ll never die wondering. The majority of our forwards are playing really well this year and if we can execute better and get our completion rate up there you’ll see a more-improved ’Dogs side.

“You’d always like to be in a better position but in saying that I think the side has got plenty of room to grow. Our defence has been really consistent throughout the year, and if we can get our attack as consistent as our defence coming into latter stages of the season then if we do make the eight that’ll put us in good stead for the semi-finals.”

Predicted Finish… Of Canterbury’s 11 remaining games, five are at ANZ Stadium and three are against the other current top-four sides. It’s hard to tell if they have over-achieved so far but with plenty of winnable games remaining the ’Dogs should press hard for a top-four finish – but don’t be surprised if they fall just short of that.

Under-20s… The junior Bulldogs are in fairly comfortable position, sitting in sixth position with an impressive +145 points differential. Like the senior side defence has been a hallmark of their success to date – Canterbury’s NYC team have conceded 267 points, which is the fifth best in the competition. (They were second best before conceding 32 points to the Rabbitohs last start.) Winger Jon Sila jointly leads the competition for tries (11) and is third overall for line-breaks (15). Up front, prop David Klemmer is eating up a massive 173 metres per game.

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