SMELL that? There is a hint of the scent of 2009 in the air at the Bulldogs – which sure is good news for their fans given 2010 ponged like someone forgot to use the plastic tidy bags out Belmore way.
After making the final four in 2009, last season shaped as one of potential dominance for the Canterbury boys but instead they stumbled out of the gates and never really got going, notching just nine wins and a 13th-place finish.
But, just as they did prior to the 2009 season, they have recruited aggressively. The football management department hope the new signings will brings with them a new fight – it will have to, as some dependable old Dogs have moved on.
Gone are veterans Luke Patten and Brett Kimmorley but joining the kennel are known stars in Frank Pritchard and Greg Eastwood, plus the likes of Aiden Tolman and Trent Hodkinson among others.
The Ryan Tandy distraction, with the forward excused from club duties while he faces police charges of providing false information in relation to the betting scandal that rocked the NRL late last year, hasn’t been ideal in the lead up to the new season. But it’s true the Bulldogs boys are often at their best when they are fighting against some adversity.
Their trial form has been okay – they got home narrowly over the Roosters and looked capable, before the Dragons gave them a lesson in discipline with a towelling.
How They’ll Play It… The Bulldogs will focus on what shapes as a lethal left-hand side. With new recruit Pritchard lurking on the edges and Josh Morris (recently re-signed for three more years) waiting outside Ben Roberts, the Bulldogs have some major attacking spark to lean towards.
But they will need to do the hard yards first and this is where Michael Ennis is key. The Origin hooker needs to marshal the forwards through the guts and create uncertainty in tight, forcing teams to compress their defences… then the Dogs can unleash their speed and flair out wide.
Expect Plenty From… Ben Barba, your time has come. After years of hearing about this whippet being the next big thing, Barba will finally have the chance to prove himself in a specialist position.
As a utility for the past couple of years Barba has shown flashes of brilliance – last season he had 15 tries in 21 games despite starting more games from the bench than he started. He added 12 line-breaks, seven line-break assists and eight try assists plus a whopping 74 tackle-breaks – but balancing the ledger he also missed more than three tackles a match.
It’s likely he will start the year as the first-choice fullback, despite some indifferent trial form – and he has the chance to make the No.1 his own for a decade.
Yep, 2011 should be the year ‘potential’ gets taken out of the equation when talking about the Mackay junior.
They’re Going To Really Miss… Brett Kimmorley and Luke Patten. The club may have decent replacements ready to go in Trent Hodkinson at halfback and Barba at fullback but it can’t be glossed over that 588 games of experience walked out with these veterans.
When games are on the line and players are under the pump, experience counts for everything. The Bulldogs will now lean heavily on Andrew Ryan as the only player with more than 200 first grade games to his name.
Kimmorley may have been burdened by a host of critics throughout his footy life but there’s no doubting he was a master at marshalling the pace of a game. And Patten was always prepared to put his body on the line for the jersey. You can’t easily replace these qualities.
Time To Stand Up… Ben Roberts. To be fair to the Bulldogs’ Kiwi five-eighth, he missed more than half of last year with injury; but for the Dogs to shine, Roberts needs to add some flair to their attack and get the likes of Morris and Barba some quality ball.
In 2009 Morris and Bryson Goodwin scored 42 tries between them on Roberts’ left-hand side – but last year they managed just 20, less than half the preceding year.
Coach Watch… Kevin Moore bought himself some time in the job by almost winning the minor premiership in his first season but after last year’s results he’ll want to see improvement or the ‘sword of Damocles’ could make an appearance over his head.
It is pretty unlikely he’d lose his job, as the family is basically part of the furniture, but all the same, mediocrity won’t be well received.
They’ll Be Boosted By… The Dogs have bought very well in the forwards, making up for the loss of Ben Hannant with Kiwi giants Greg Eastwood, who returns from the UK, and Frank Pritchard. This pair have the potential to create havoc on the edges and Eastwood can also take it up through the middle if required.
The jury on Trent Hodkinson will be out early but if he can replicate and improve from his debut season with Manly last year he will ensure the side has youthful flair in the halves. Kris Keating’s arrival from Parramatta certainly creates options in the halves and Aiden Tolman looks a representative prop in the making, should he maintain his high standards learned in Melbourne.
Predicted Finish… The Bulldogs should be a finals team in 2011 but there are some question marks. We’ll have faith and say they’ll nab 8th place.
Toyota Cup… The Bulldogs’ under-20s finished a game short of the grand final last season after an amazing mid- to late-season run. They could prove a tough proposition again with five-eighth Aidan Sezer leading the way.
Sezer, a capable runner not afraid of taking on the defensive line, was the Toyota Cup Five-eighth of the Year in 2010; he was also recently selected in Ricky Stuart’s ‘Blues in Waiting’ squad.
Gains… Greg Eastwood (Leeds), Trent Hodkinson (Sea Eagles), Kris Keating (Eels), Michael Lett (Dragons), Grant Millington (Sharks), Frank Pritchard (Panthers), Aiden Tolman (Storm), Jonathan Wright (Eels).
Losses… Paki Afu (Eels), Yileen Gordon (Panthers), Blake Green (Hull KR), Ben Hannant (Broncos), Daniel Harrison (Sea Eagles), Jarred Hickey (Wakefield Trinity Wildcats), Brett Kimmorley (retired), Kose Lelei (Sharks), Nathan Massey (Raiders), Luke Patten (Salford Reds), Ratu Tagive (Tigers), Tim Winitana (Panthers).