1. Des Hasler
The signing of no-nonsense mentor Hasler is a real coup for the Bulldogs who have struggled for consistency since their surprise wooden spoon in 2008, the last season of Steve Folkes’ 11-year coaching tenure. Although Kevin Moore rallied the side and they bounced back with a preliminary final showing in 2009, they nosedived again last year, slipping to 13th and jettisoning Moore along the way. Assistant coach Jim Dymock did a solid job holding the fort but securing Hasler for a four-year term should result in the Bulldogs consistently sinking their teeth into a top-four berth.
With Hasler at the helm Manly played in three grand finals, won two premierships and missed the top eight just once – in his first year in 2004. He has a magnificent track record at nurturing talent – including guiding Trent Hodkinson, who he reunites with at Belmore, to among the elite band of rookies in 2010. Hasler and the Bulldogs are a perfect fit: both thrive on siege mentality. He’ll get them playing to their potential, with field position and minimum mistakes the mantra. His biggest task will be to arrest the Bulldogs’ miserable territorial loss each game – last season they conceded a whopping 1464 metres each outing, the most by any side. Hasler is the man for the job, given the Sea Eagles leaked the fewest metres per game in 2011. Significantly Hasler won’t try to curry favour with his new roster – that’s entirely up to the players. But should they put in for Dessie, huge rewards, both personal and team, lie just around the corner.
2. A new direction
In Michael Ennis, Des Hasler finds a carbon copy of his former playing self: a fierce, creative competitor who is also one of the fittest players in the game. Andrew Ryan was a steadying influence as captain but new skipper-in-waiting Ennis will instil greater urgency and demand more intensity. He’ll thrive on the added responsibility and it should push him to one of his most productive seasons yet – somewhere between the benchmark attack he displayed in 2009 when he amassed the most line-break assists (16) and try assists (19) for the blue-and-whites, and his overtime defence from last year when he finished with a career-high 43 tackles a game from 12 appearances in an injury-affected season.
3. British Bulldog
Securing England captain James Graham for three years will give the Bulldogs’ pack more punch than they’ve had in years. And they gain the former Man of Steel award recipient at the age of 26, when he’s approaching the peak of his powers. The combination of 108-kilogram Graham with Ennis and fellow blondie Aiden Tolman should spearhead the Bulldogs to a greater physical and territorial presence. Graham is a good old-fashioned toiler who has a dash of flair too, and he’ll also bring strong leadership qualities to supplement Ennis’ direction. Plus, he’s no stranger to success, winning Challenge Cup finals with St Helens in 2006, ’07 and ’08.
4. From apprentice to sorcerer
In just his first season at fullback in 2011, Ben Barba showed a level of breathtaking individual brilliance not seen before in the NRL. The 22-year-old’s outrageous attacking game was the equal – at least – of any of the competition’s lauded excitement machines. Barba finished the season with 23 four-pointers to tie Nathan Merritt as equal top tryscorer (and scored the try of the year with an outrageous grounding against Newcastle in Round 25) but it was his ability to exploit even the smallest holes in opposition defences that stunned the greater rugby league audience. Barba carved out 30 blistering line-breaks – 11 more than next-best Matt Cooper. It was an incredible feat given the Bulldogs languished in 11th place in the overall line-breaks stats category! Barba matched strength with speed too, ranking fourth for tackle-breaks (with 117). With the Bulldogs expected to bare their teeth and forge more territory than their fourth-fewest metres last year, Barba’s wafting presence will provide an even greater threat in 2012.
5. Young pups
Expect 2012 to be the graduation year for forwards Josh Jackson and Dale Finucane, who took to the field for the Bulldogs in every Toyota Cup clash over the past two years. Jackson , a Junior Kangaroo, is a strapping second-rower who scored five tries and averaged 123 metres with 29 tackles last season. His game combines strength with skill – he made 82 tackle busts and added 33 offloads scouting wide in 2011. Meanwhile Finucane could be the next Paul Gallen – last year he made a huge impact at both lock forward (14 games) and prop (11 games), averaging 137 and 160 metres respectively and averaging 31 tackles. Expect Jackson, 21, and Finucane, 20, to each take their first steps in what are likely to be glittering NRL careers.