Bulldogs: Season Review
HOME RECORD: 11 wins, 1 loss (=1st)
AWAY RECORD: 7 wins, 5 losses (=1st)
FINALS RECORD: 1-1 (Won 28-12 v Knights; Lost 22-12 v Eels)
BEST WINNING STREAK: 5 (rounds 4-8 and 21-25)
LONGEST LOSING STREAK: 1
PLAYERS USED: 27 (1 debutant)
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: David Stagg
TRIES SCORED (After 26 rounds): 98 (=3rd)
TRIES CONCEDED (After 26 rounds): 76 (3rd fewest)
They fell victim to the Parramatta juggernaut when it mattered most but even their sudden exit in the Preliminary Final can’t take the shine off what was a magnificent comeback season for he Bulldogs.
Wooden-spooners 12 months ago, the club rolled the dice and won after a giant internal shake-up saw 13 players depart including Sonny Bill Williams – who walked out midway through 2008 – and lock Reni Maitua who was sacked for repeated off-field infringements.
Coach Steve Folkes was also let go after 11 years at the helm.
In their place came halfback Brett Kimmorley, speedster Josh Morris, back-rower Michael Hodgson, backs Yileen Gordon and Bryson Goodwin and Brisbane quartet Ben Hannant, Michael Ennis, Greg Eastwood and David Stagg.
The results were immediate.
From the moment the Bulldogs thrashed premiers Manly 34-12 on a rain-soaked opening weekend – winger Hazem El Masri breaking the all-time point-scoring record in the process – you knew this was a different club to the one that had undergone more turmoil than any other over the past decade.
The Bulldogs stormed their way through the field to finish second after the regular season with 18 wins and just six losses.
They earned the week off after disposing of Newcastle in Week One of the finals but bowed out a week shy of the Grand Final after going down 22-12 to the hottest team in the competition in a pulsating final at ANZ Stadium.
Where They Excelled… In the forwards. The Bulldogs built their season on a rock-solid pack that was relentless in their go-forward.
Prop Ben Hannant was arguably the buy of the season, running for a total of 2387 metres at an average of 133 per game, while hooker Michael Ennis provided dogged aggression and a touch of class around the ruck.
Their efforts provided halfback Brett Kimmorley – who loves time to kick at the line –the space he needed to lead his side into the finals.
Where They Struggled… In the finals. A fractured cheekbone suffered by halfback Brett Kimmorley in the side’s penultimate regular season game against the Warriors certainly seemed to rattle the Bulldogs.
They were surprisingly thrashed 34-12 by Wests Tigers leading into the finals and although they disposed of an out-of-sorts Newcastle in Week One they never really found their mojo again.
Kimmorley returned for the grand final qualifier against Parramatta but after leading 12-6 at half-time they barely threatened the line again as the Eels powered home to win 22-12.
Missing In Action… Veteran winger Matt Utai was the forgotten man of the NRL in 2009.
Utai has played four Tests for New Zealand and won a premiership with the Bulldogs in 2004 but he played just five first grade games this season with new arrivals Josh Morris and Bryson Goodwin cementing the wing spots.
He instead spent most of the year plying his trade for NSW Cup side Bankstown Bulls, for whom he won a premiership.
Turning Point… Kimmorley’s cheekbone injury was the ‘sliding doors’ moment in his side’s season. Until then the Bulldogs had barely put a foot wrong but they suddenly looked fallible with the veteran playmaker off the field.
When he returned against Parramatta a month later he looked rusty and struggled to make an impact on the game.
Best Games… The Bulldogs’ Round 1 win over Manly was the dawn of a new era at the club.
It was a huge night for the club, who were not only keen to prove the woes of 2008 were behind them but to also celebrate winger Hazem El Masri’s achievement of becoming rugby league’s highest ever point-scorer.
And it took El Masri just 33 minutes to score the seven points he needed with a penalty from right in front of the posts.
The Bulldogs enjoyed a night to remember as they scored five tries to two in a 34-12 win.
Worst Games… Only once all season did the Bulldogs lose by more than 10 points – their 27-8 Round 20 loss to arch-rivals Parramatta.
The team that would prove the Bulldogs’ nemesis in 2009 dominated them from ref’s whistle to siren, running in five tries and holding the home side scoreless for the entire second half. Coach Kevin Moore said afterwards that it was the first time all year his side hadn’t turned up ready to play.
Hold Your Head High… Josh Morris. The speedster arrived from St George Illawarra on the back of an impressive 2008 season for the Dragons but stepped it up another notch to score 20 tries from just 19 NRL appearances. He also made his State of Origin debut for NSW, scoring a try in his side’s Game Three win.
Bryson Goodwin was a potent strike weapon too, scoring 20 tries from 24 games.
Coach Kevin Moore says … “It was a very enjoyable year – although you don’t feel that at the end. When you get so close it’s very hard to take.
“We’ll sit back over the next few weeks and assess everything. But it’s obviously been a very good year for the club on and off the field. Our crowds have been great – our fans have been tremendous.
“There is a lot of really positive stuff around the club but just at the moment the players – and the coach – are hurting a fair bit.”
Conclusion… Despite the disappointment of bowing out a week shy of the Grand Final, the Bulldogs can be pleased with the strides they made in 2009.
The turnaround was quite remarkable – from wooden-spooners to second place in just 12 months and with the promise of more good years ahead.
Just as importantly, the club cleaned up their act off the field as well, re-establishing a positive relationship with the media and fans alike.
The ‘Family Club’ has returned.