Ben Blaschke, NRL.com
Home Record: 9 wins, 3 losses (=1st)
Away Record: 9 wins, 3 losses (1st)
Longest Winning Streak: 12 (Rounds 11-24)
Longest Losing Streak: 3 (Rounds 6-8)
Players Used: 27
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 100 (3rd)
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 64 (1st)
For every winner, there has to be a loser and no doubt whenever the Bulldogs look back on season 2012 it will be with a hint of disappointment that they didn’t quite get the job done.
Yet the reality is that Canterbury took enormous strides this season, completely overhauling the way they go about their business off the field and surging to the minor premiership with some memorable football on it.
The Bulldogs put it all on the line in 2012, opening the chequebook firstly to lure coach Des Hasler across from Manly and then to kit out Belmore Sports Ground with the sort of high-tech, ground-breaking training and recovery facilities usually reserved for the likes of Manchester United or Barcelona.
Financially it was a significant risk, but it didn’t take long for the investment to reap dividends.
The Bulldogs started well by winning their first three, suffered a slight hiccup with five losses from their next seven, and then embarked on a stunning run of 12 straight wins that saw them surge to the top of the NRL ladder.
And there were a number of significant contributions along the way. Canterbury’s forward pack earned enormous plaudits throughout the year, their ability to pass before the line proving particularly lethal through the likes of English recruit James Graham and big Kiwi Sam Kasiano.
Incredibly, a worrying run of injuries to the club’s outside backs that threatened to seriously test their depth instead worked wonders, with the Bulldogs luring Kiwi internationals Krisnan Inu from the Warriors and Sam Perrett from the Roosters mid-season.
Inu in particular must have left his former employers scratching their heads as he proceeded to produce a series of match-winning performances after making his debut in Round 12. He began by scoring two tries and setting up another against Sydney Roosters, kicked the decisive field goal to down South Sydney a week later and did it again in extra time to beat Wests Tigers in Round 24.
However, nobody lit up the NRL in 2012 quite like fullback Ben Barba. The diminutive custodian produced a run of form not seen since Jarryd Hayne drove Parramatta to the 2009 grand final, providing rock solid cover at the back and producing a series of stunning solo plays to eventually claim the Dally M medal.
Among the highlights was a length-of-the-field try against old rivals Parramatta, a stunning break against Melbourne in Round 16 in which he raced 60 metres before kicking inside for Josh Morris to score, and two scintillating tries in the Round 21 blockbuster against North Queensland.
Barba’s brilliance saw Canterbury claim their first minor premiership since 1994 and it came as no surprise to see them move into the grand final, albeit with tough finals wins over Manly and Souths.
Alas, having won every other prize along the way, they fell just short of topping it all off with a premiership. In a brutal grand final that saw both Canterbury and Melbourne defend like titans, it was the experience of the Storm’s key position players that proved the difference in their 14-4 win.
But Greenberg’s decision to sign Hasler wasn’t about 2012, it was about the long term and in that regard the Bulldogs can sit back and enjoy the off-season knowing that they are well on their way. If Hasler’s track record is anything to go by, a premiership will come their way sooner rather than later.
Where They Excelled… Canterbury’s forward pack was crucial to their success in 2012. They ranked second in the NRL behind only Cronulla for total metres made from hit-ups with 12,559 at 523 per game, and first for offloads with 305. They were also renowned for their ability to pass before the line, which regularly opened up space for the likes of Ben Barba and Josh Morris to work their magic.
Canterbury were the masters of capitalising on broken-field situations and lazy kick-chases in 2012 and they posed a threat from anywhere on the park as a result. Their 19 tries from inside their own half was easily the most of any side in the NRL, as was their 28 tries from between 20-50 metres out.
Where They Struggled… The Bulldogs relied heavily on the individual brilliance of their superstar backs a little too often at times, with their halves struggling for creativity. It’s notable that while they were the most-dangerous side in the competition from long range, they ranked 13th for tries scored from within 10 metres of the try-line with just 37 (ahead of only Penrith, Parramatta and Newcastle). While Josh Reynolds produced 20 try assists and 10 line-break assists in an impressive first full season, Trent Hodkinson produced none in his six games while Kris Keating added just 11 try assists and six line-break assists.
Missing In Action… Serious injuries to wingers Steve Turner and Bryson Goodwin stretched the Bulldogs’ resources early although they more than covered for their absence with the mid-season signings of Krisnan Inu and Sam Perrett. Halfback Trent Hodkinson was an early casualty with a knee injury, his absence opening the door for Kris Keating to take his place for the remainder of the year. While Hodkinson eventually returned in NSW Cup, he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury just a few weeks later in what proved to be a forgettable season for the former Manly premiership-winning half.
Versatile forward Dene Halatau missed eight weeks mid-year with a knee injury suffered against Parramatta in Round 19 and couldn’t win his spot back – being named 18th man for the grand final.
Turning Point… When Canterbury fell 25-14 to the Titans at Suncorp Stadium in Round 10, nobody could have believed at the time that they would lose just one more game in the regular season. The Bulldogs’ 26-6 win over Cronulla the following week was the start of a 12-match winning streak, but while they won their next three games, it was their 20-4 win over Melbourne in Mackay in Round 16 that really gave them the confidence to go on and claim the minor premiership. Once again, Ben Barba was the star of the show – scoring a try and setting up two more with scintillating runs.
Best Games… That win over Melbourne was certainly something special for the Bulldogs, who restricted their opponents to a single try and made a significant move towards the top of the NRL ladder. Their 32-18 win against an in-form North Queensland in Round 21 was also one of their better efforts. The Bulldogs scored five tries to three –with Barba crossing for a thrilling double – to stretch their unbeaten run to nine games.
Worst Games… The Bulldogs were brought back down to earth with a thud in Round 25, their 12-game winning streak coming to an end in emphatic fashion with a 34-6 loss to Canberra. The Raiders dominated from the outset with four tries to one in the opening half and two more in the second half – all but one scored on the edges. Canterbury simply had no answer out wide as Sandor Earl crossed for a hat-trick and Reece Robinson added two of his own. Canberra repeatedly caught the ’Dogs napping by kicking in behind the line early in the tackle count.
Hold Your Head High… So many solid performers for Canterbury in 2012. Ben Barba was obviously the standout on his way to 22 tries for the season and his combination with Josh Morris, who earned a recall to the NSW State of Origin squad and was later selected for Australia against New Zealand in the end-of-year Test, resulted in plenty of points. Five-eighth Josh Reynolds made the permanent move into the halves and was outstanding in his new playmaking role, with some already tipping him as an Origin player of the not-so-distant future. Up front, Aiden Tolman and James Graham were standout performers averaging 124 and 127 metres respectively (and how they will sorely miss the Englishman’s drive through the first eight weeks of 2013 after his 12-week suspension for biting Billy Slater in the grand final), while captain Michael Ennis showed tremendous maturity and reined in his famous on-field aggression as he led his side all the way to the grand final.
Coach Des Hasler says: “We were probably guilty of making a lot of unforced errors (in the grand final) so we handed them quite a bit of possession and they’re too good a side – too clinical, too polished. You can’t afford to give a side as good as that in a grand final that much possession. They had 10 or 11 sets on our try-line. The try right on half-time was a tough one to have scored against us. Going in at 14-4… Melbourne are a very hard side to run down.
“It was pretty obvious what we had to do in that second half and we gave it every chance but in saying that I’ve got to congratulate the Canterbury side. They had a pretty good year. They had a lot of young players coming into the NRL and I think it puts the club in very good shape going forward.”
Conclusion… Never mind the fact that they fell 80 minutes short of a premiership, 2012 was truly a spectacular season for the Bulldogs. Having missed the finals the previous two seasons, all eyes were on the boys from Belmore to see what, if any, impact new coach Des Hasler would have on them. It quickly became apparent that they would be a force to be reckoned with for some time to come. Hasler boasts a unique ability to bring out talents that had previously laid dormant in his players and that was evident right across the park in 2012 with the likes of Ben Barba, Josh Morris and recruit Krisnan Inu displaying career-best form pretty much from day one. While plenty of hard work remains they will only be better for the experiences of the past 12 months.