Season Preview: Canterbury Bulldogs

THE challenge for the Bulldogs is to show that last year’s effort was not merely a backlash against the indignities of 2008, but the start of a resurgence that could lead to another premiership.<br><br>The signs are mostly good. Canterbury last season were a new-look team under a first-year NRL coach in Kevin Moore. Fans are entitled to expect sharper execution and slicker combinations this time around.<br><br>While a champion has retired in Hazem El Masri and other honest contributors have moved on, overall the club looks stronger for its acquisitions, including ex-Wests Tigers Dene Halatau and Corey Payne, and two-time premiership winger Steve Turner (Storm).<br><br>The club enjoyed an unusually smooth season in 2009, with few injuries and no prolonged dips in form. Two such seasons in a row would be extraordinary. But the ’Dogs have rediscovered their ethos. Teams wanting to beat them will have to do it the hard way. <br><br><b>Their Keys To Success…</b> The ’Dogs bit back in ’09 on the back of the KISS principle. Expect more of the same: a strong go-forward game built on props Ben Hannant and Michael Hodgson and Jarrad Hickey; some zip around the rucks via hooker Michael Ennis; and frequent, varied and precise kicking courtesy of Brett Kimmorley.<br><br>Canterbury have not been “The Entertainers” since the early 1980s and aren’t about to revive that freewheeling approach now. That said, they’re figuring another off-season under the belts of a reconstructed unit will bring a lift in attacking potency, and coach Moore wants each player to show a little more with the ball than he managed last year.<br><br>Seasons don’t seem so long or punishing when not every win is a grind. And without El Masri lobbing them over from all corners, the ’Dogs will need to find ways to cross the stripe more often. <br><br>Canterbury were dissatisfied with their ’09 defensive effort, and have devoted a good part of the off-season to tightening the screws.<br><br><b>Expect Plenty From…</b> There’s a buzz out of Homebush about Ben Barba, the former Toyota Cup whiz kid yet to unveil his full repertoire of tricks on the bigger stage.<br><br>Canterbury hardheads reckon this could be his breakthrough year: Barba, apparently, has been training the house down; he’s gained weight and strength; he’s matured; Kimmorley has convinced him that certain skills need to be well executed not usually but 99 per cent of the time.<br><br>Barba will be doing well to grab a starting position early in the season. But if he has come on like club insiders think he has, and retained the sizzle that made him a standout at under-20s level, then he’ll get his chance soon enough.<br><b><br>They’re Going To Really Miss…</b> El Masri was a champion but the ’Dogs figure they have his loss more or less covered. In reality, toward the end, the winger was more El Solid in general play than El Magic. In his place, ex-Storm flyer Turner will bring some extra zip to kick-returns. And while he can’t land goals like El Masri could, he’s a decent kicker, as are Bryson Goodwin or Michael Ennis or Jamal Idris.<br><br>Though they’ve been busy bolstering the back row, Canterbury are sorry to lose Greg Eastwood, outstanding last year off the bench. The grunt and impact he provided won’t be easily replaced.<br><br><b>Time To Stand Up…</b> Young centre Jamal Idris received some rave reviews last year, but hardheads recognise his football career (and oversized body) could still go either way.<br><br>Amid the flashes of rare talent were times he looked clueless in defence. The club will shelter him from the media, believing he doesn’t handle the attention well.<br><br>Club brass is looking for him to make a developmental leap as a player in 2010.<br><br><b>Coach Watch…</b> Moore looks as certain to see out the year as any coach in the NRL. His effort of taking the 2008 wooden-spooners to within a week of last year’s decider speaks for itself.<br><br>While his debut was a breeze as coaching goes, Moore knows tougher times are coming. Regarded by his players as approachable, calm and astute, he looks the perfect fit for a club that doesn’t hope for success so much as expect it.<br><br><b>They’re All The Better For…</b> The club did as much research on the character of the players it chased as their footballing prowess. Most excitement centres around Halatau and Paea, forwards with a touch of creativity, and Turner, who’ll hopefully bring a slice of the Storm’s winning culture to Homebush. Blake Green (Sharks) will again play understudy to Kimmorley, and with Junior Tia-Kilifi (Penrith), will intensify the competition for top XVII places.<br><br><b>Predicted Finish… </b>A lot will depend on what’s left in the ageing legs of Kimmorley. Then again, he’s an organiser rather than a dasher, and will win his team some games in the proverbial dinner suit.<br><br>The ’Dogs will be lucky to have as few injuries as they did last year, but they’re also better covered than they were. They need someone like Barba to step up so they can match some of the other top sides for flair. Commitment, solidarity and focus are all in place. Top four. <br><br><b>Toyota Cup… </b>Canterbury are looking for a big improvement on last year’s 11th-placing. This should happen with key players backing up and strong off-season recruitment.<br><br>The club’s particularly excited about their young lock, last year’s SG Ball Player of the Year Dale Finucane, and a giant, painfully shy Islander prop, Sam Kasiano, whose metre count in 2010 will likely exceed his word count. <br>