Andrew Bryan, NRL.com
Nine players who will play in this year’s grand final were there for the Bulldogs' last game of the 2011 season at ANZ Stadium, donning Star Wars jumpers and watching their inspirational captain almost tear a hamstring by jumping on his namesake, a bobcat. It's fair to say it was a strange ending to another disappointing season.
Preliminary finalists in 2009, the Bulldogs would miss the finals completely for the next two seasons, with their captain Andrew Ryan retiring after 218 appearances for the Canterbury-Bankstown club.
It wasn’t where the club expected to be. The Bulldogs demanded success, and going from being one game short of the grand final to missing the following finals series in consecutive years wasn’t good enough.
While the Star Wars jerseys and promotional activity created interest in the last game of their season, there was no secret the Bulldogs yearned to return to the top and return to being a force.
“We had a good bunch of people, the coaching staff were great, we just didn’t seem to be consistent,” Ryan told NRL.com of the two years the Bulldogs missed the finals.
“Whether or not that comes down to preparation or the way we trained, not too sure. We just couldn’t find consistency.
“We had some great performances in those two years and we kept a majority of the squad together. You can see the preparation they have done this year and just how thorough they are. They are working as a unit, there are not many deficiencies in their game. We let ourselves down defensively in those periods.”
Twelve months on, the Bulldogs strike back.
They return to play the last game of their season at ANZ Stadium, but this time the Storm troopers they face are not decked out in all white jumpsuits, but purple jerseys emblazoned with lightning bolts – and there is much more at stake.
The force being applied on Sunday is not from a supernatural energy but from battle-hardened Melbourne, led by the ‘big three’ and their general Craig Bellamy.
How did it come to this?
Former captain Ryan believes the Bulldogs always had the playing group to do something special, but hailed the club’s return to its spiritual home, Belmore Oval, and the methods brought by Des Hasler as the driving force behind the club’s resurgence.
“There have been a few changes,” Ryan said.
“Des has come in, he has a massive influence. He is a hugely successful coach and obviously the people he brings with him, he leaves no stone unturned. All their equipment, the sport science; there are no excuses once you get out on the football field. They have everything there for the players.
“The cherry on the top of that is going back to Belmore, the facilities there are top shelf. We had sort of been a little bit all over the shop with the facilities we were using and where we were training. You don’t want to make excuses, but looking back it did have a part to play in our couple of disappointing years.
“All those factors with the new facility gives them a great base to reach the level they are playing at now.”
Asked why the Bulldogs had struggled to make the finals after the highs of 2009, Ryan was unsure.
“It is hard to put your finger on,” he said.
“2009 was a really good year and unfortunately in that game (the preliminary final) Luke Patten got injured in the first minute and that obviously threw us out of whack for a while. Parramatta were on a massive roll as well.
“In 2011 we started the season really well, our first six or seven games were really good, then we just fell into a massive slump in the middle of the year, but we finished off really well.
“We played Manly in the third last game at Brookvale. Realistically, if we had won that we could have kept ourselves in with a chance of making the semis, but they were a good team and went on to win the premiership, so we fell a little bit short.”
Under Hasler in 2012 the Bulldogs have not merely returned to being finals contenders, they have emphatically roared back to being a genuine premiership force. They face the Storm confident they can win the club’s ninth grand final.
No-one will be prouder on Sunday to watch them run out than their former captain, whose only regret is not that he retired a year too early, but that he jumped and slipped on that darn bobcat.