Position after 13 rounds: 8th
Competition points: 14
Given their disastrous 13th-place finish in 2010, chances are Bulldogs coach Kevin Moore would have been ecstatic had someone guaranteed his side a spot in the top eight at the midpoint of 2011. But after winning five of their first seven, including their opening three, any initial joy on the coach’s behalf must surely be giving way to concern as he looks to arrest the slide that has seen his blue-and-whites lose four of their past five matches – including a demoralising 38-4 defeat at home to the Sea Eagles last week.
Canterbury exploded like a shot out of a gun in 2011 with victories over the Wests Tigers, Rabbitohs and Roosters before stalling with back-to-back defeats to the Storm and Dragons. But losing to those two sides is certainly no disgrace; when they followed that downer fortnight with wins over the Eels and Rabbitohs, most fans assumed their team was back on track.
However, subsequent losses to the Broncos, Dragons (again) and last week the Sea Eagles, plus the aberration of being monstered by the lowly Raiders in Round 11, has cast a shadow of doubt over the Bulldogs’ resilience, not to mention their ability to compete with the top sides. (They have yet to beat a side in the top six, with their biggest scalp the seventh-placed Wests Tigers.)
Are Things Going To Plan? Sort of. The biggest unknowns for the Bulldogs at the end of last season were whether new buy Trent Hodkinson could make an immediate impact in the No.7 replacing the retired Brett Kimmorley, and whether Ben Barba would sink or swim replacing UK-bound Luke Patten at fullback. Both have been sensational, with Barba’s 11 tries elevating him to NRL top tryscorer.
One of the keys to Hodkinson’s smooth assimilation has been halves partner Kris Keating who has been solid in the No.6.
Aiden Tolman has stamped himself representative quality and would have been in the mix for Origin II had he not been injured.
But despite the plusses the Bulldogs seem to lack focus and drift in and out of games, as the high number of points scored against them after halftime would indicate: their 66 points conceded in the 20 minutes after oranges is the third most in the comp. Understandably, putting themselves under this much pressure has required a stern last quarter, with their 51 points conceded the fourth fewest. They need more consistency early in matches.
Injury Front… Nothing too much to complain about here. The Bulldogs have called on just 25 players to date – the fifth fewest. Their biggest blow came in Round 11 when workhorse prop Aiden Tolman injured his knee, which is expected to see him sit out another month before a return.
Former NSW Origin centre Josh Morris also had knee problems that have restricted him to six games. And back-rower Greg Eastwood has played only five games.
But their spine of fullback Barba, five-eighth Keating, halfback Hodkinson and hooker Michael Ennis has been left mostly intact, except for Hodkinson’s two-match suspension from Round 12 and Ennis’ participation in State of Origin.
If Only… They could stop teams running roughshod over them. The Bulldogs have an okay defensive record – they concede the sixth fewest line-breaks per game and fifth fewest missed tackles. But they are rock bottom for conceding metres to oppositions, with a league-high 1457 metres made against them each week. And they concede the sixth most points (20.4 a game).
Which is a little strange given they have four individuals ranked in the top 17 for defensive efforts – David Stagg (41.8 tackles a game, 8th), Michael Ennis (41.5, 9th), Andrew Ryan (37.2, 15th) and Aiden Tolman (36.2, 17th).
Also, if only Frank Pritchard could maintain a damaging presence every game. Pritchard has been devastating on occasion but, as was the case during his time at Penrith, he’s been prone to switch on and off.
Who’s Flying… Ben Barba has proven every bit the game-breaker starting matches as he was coming off the bench last year. He’s made more line-breaks than any player in the comp (16) and scored the most tries. He also ranks third for tackle busts (61). His 18 errors (seventh most) are a lot for a fullback though.
Jamal Idris is terrorising opponents on the right flank in both attack and defence; he ranks fourth for tackle busts (59) and second for big hits (eight), with 11 dominant efforts and 18 one-on-one tackles.
Aiden Tolman leads all props for average metres (145) and tackles (36).
Needs To Lift… The right-side defence is letting the team down. The Bulldogs have conceded 22 tries down their right corridor – nine more than on the other side of the field.
Hodkinson has picked up in attack where he left off last year for Manly, although his defence needs stiffening. He has made 25 ineffective tackles – most by any halfback – while his 37 misses are fourth most by players in the No.7.
Coach Kevin Moore tells NRL.com… “The last few weeks we’ve just been going through a tough period. We’ve been missing a few personnel. Overall I thought the first eight or nine weeks of the competition we were pretty solid and fairly consistent. There are certainly some areas we need to work on, and some of those areas we got found out on at the weekend (against Manly) have been an issue for us in the first 12 or 13 rounds.
“The bye has probably come at a good time for us because we’re struggling a little bit physically. There are certainly some individuals I would like to see find some more consistent form, both week to week and across the 80 minutes.
“Our form in the first eight or nine rounds was really good. Ben Barba at the back is a bloke we’re really happy with. He has shown a lot of maturity – I know he played a lot at junior level at fullback but he hasn’t played a lot in the top grade and it’s quite a demanding position. I think he has shown that he has worked hard during the off-season and he is going to be a very good performer for the club for many years to come.”
Predicted Finish… It’s tough to know what to make of the Bulldogs until they start beating top-notch oppositions. They get their chance to do that in the coming three months with return clashes with the Storm and Sea Eagles, plus the Cowboys. They also have stern away tests against the Wests Tigers and Warriors. Still, they appear above the class of the teams milling around the middle of the competition so it would be a considerable surprise if they were to finish any lower (worse) than their current seventh spot.
Under-20s… The Bulldog pups have a real shot at this year’s minor premiership, sitting third on the ladder at the halfway point just one win away from front-runners the Warriors and Melbourne. They boast the best defence in the TC, conceding just 16.3 points per game. Captain Dale Finucane has led the way and shown great versatility, carving out 140 metres and 28 tackles each week while filling the roles of prop, second-rower and even lock. Five-eighth Aidan Sezer has added a steady hand with five try assists and six line-break assists. Back-rower Lachlan Burr has been damaging with 57 tackle busts.