Sterling Gold: 'Dogs defence still a work in progress
No club recruited for the 2011 season more strongly or impressively than the Canterbury Bulldogs.
Having said that, a 13th placed finish last year and the departure of a number of key players made that a necessity.
The 'Dogs were gross disappointments in 2010, winning just nine matches and being out of finals contention by round 15. That was particularly unexpected considering they were coming off the back of being preliminary finalists in '09.
Throw in the loss of experienced and influential campaigners Brett Kimmorley, Luke Patten and Ben Hannant and the club was in desperate need of shoring up their playing personnel.
They did this with a host of astute signings in the shape of Aiden Tolman, Frank Pritchard, Trent Hodkinson, Kris Keating, Greg Eastwood and Grant Millington.
In the opening eight games the side has looked highly competitive and must again be viewed as true contenders. Three losses to the current top three teams on the premiership ladder prompted Canterbury coach Kevin Moore to declare that his side weren't far off the mark.
With such an influx of new players it was always going to take some time to get combinations right and to have the team "gel".
It's an oft-used description but what does it really mean?
To my mind it's not just about players learning how to play within various structures and formations but how they react to each other as individuals. Being aware of what teammates are going to do in certain situations through instinct rather than having to think about it.
In most facets of their play the Bulldogs are faring very nicely but there is one area that is still causing concern.
Whilst statistics can sometimes be misleading they can also clearly illustrate a problem.
So far this season the 'Dogs have conceded 28 tries. Dividing the field into three sections, there have been eight tries scored down their left side, six in their middle corridor and 14 down the right. This currently ranks their left side defensively as the third most effective in the league but their right side as the third worst.
In fact of the 13 tries they have conceded in their last four outings, 10 of them have been to the right of the uprights.
When it comes to defence the most important thing is that all players are operating off the same hymn sheet.
In the opening rounds it was obvious that youngsters Trent Hodkinson and Jamal Idris did not know each other's game and struggled to act in unison.
Jamal had a habit of racing up quickly out of the line while Trent stayed back and this invited problems.
Against the Roosters in week 3, Idris shot up at Braith Anasta in an effort to halt the play but only managed to bounce off the tri-colours skipper, which exposed winger Steve Turner on the outside. Anasta was able to draw and pass and put Todd Carney over in the corner.
A week later against Melbourne Idris again went up quickly but made the cardinal sin of moving past the ball-carrier Adam Blair. With the defence now staggered, Blair was able to find Gareth Widdop on the outside who showed good footwork before off-loading to Dane Nielsen to score
Kevin Moore obviously identified this problem because since then we have seen the defensive line come up together in an effort to slide against the attacking team. The only problem is that after moving up into a good position they are actually sliding back towards their own try-line. When contact is finally made with the man carrying the football, the damage has already been done.
The change in approach without achieving the desired result is shown in Canterbury's two meetings with South Sydney already this year.
In round 2, Idris targeted John Sutton and moved out of the line at the Rabbitoh's ball-player, who comfortably passed to Greg Inglis. Not expecting his inside man to break ranks, winger Steve Turner again realised he was in trouble and belatedly headed towards Inglis. Easily summing up the situation Greg passed back on the inside to Rhys Wesser who raced through the yawning gap left by the two Bulldogs.
Five weeks later confronted by a similar Souths attack in the 61st minute, the Canterbury defence this time came up together – but by moving sideways and back from the ball the Rabbitohs were able to utilise their overlap for Chris McQueen to score wide out.
The problem was even more evident against St George Illawarra in round 5 with a Matt Cooper double whammy.
In the Dragons' opening try when Mark Gasnier passed the ball to Darius Boyd, the 'Dogs defenders had clearly made it out to their own 10-metre line and were in an excellent position to deal with the Dragons' onslaught. Boyd passed behind decoy Ben Hornby to Matt Cooper and by the time Jamal Idris attempted to tackle his opposing centre, Cooper was two metres from the line, outside his man and impossible to stop.
The Canterbury defenders had retreated eight metres.
It was "take two" 25 minutes later with the usual suspects Boyd, Ben Creagh and Ben Hornby again combining to set up Cooper for his second touchdown. Again the tackle on the big man was attempted close to the line after the Canterbury defence had relinquished their good position.
The remedy is at hand because the players have already done nine tenths of the work.
On the back of good line-speed and moving forward as one, it is now just a matter of going across field and not backwards once they start their slide.
Whilst the club would be absolutely delighted that Jamal Idris won his first Australian jersey last weekend, I would imagine that there is a small part of coach Moore who would have liked to have had his talented centre at his disposal through the bye.
Extra work in preparation for Friday night's blockbuster against the Dragons would have been invaluable although it was an unexpected bonus that Jamal got so much game time against the Kiwis in the centres – albeit on the opposite side to what he is used to.
I like what I see from the Canterbury club this year and they are only going to get better as the season progresses.
On Friday night however they will need to deal with the much-vaunted right side attack of the Dragons, and how they do so will reveal whether they have learnt a valuable early lesson.