Gains: James Graham (St Helens), Luke MacDougall (Saracens), James Gavet (Warriors).
Losses: Jamal Idris (Titans), Michael Hodgson (retired), Brad Morrin (retired), Ben Roberts (Eels), Gary Warburton (retired), Jarred Hickey (Wakefield), Adam Sezer (Titans), Andrew Ryan (retired), Chris Armit (Panthers), Grant Millington (Castleford), Junior Tia-Kilifi (Panthers), John Kite (Widnes), Cameron Phelps (Widnes).
Have the Doggies, under modern-day master coach Des Hasler, finally managed to rediscover their lost bite? After back-to-back poor seasons in 2010 and 2011, when the club finished 13th and 9th respectively, and following a bitter ‘family’ feud where the club aired its dirty laundry, Bulldogs fans are certainly hoping so.
For Canterbury, season 2012 is all about change: a new coach in Hasler taking the reins following the much-publicised demise of Kevin Moore and the bumping to the bench of touted successor Jim Dymock; a new captain in Michael Ennis; and a new culture of hard work, attention to detail and commitment.
Last season was a rollercoaster ride for Bulldogs fans; despite some mid-year turmoil, the club competed well enough to finish agonisingly short of the finals on for-and-against. The form of livewire fullback Ben Barba was one of the few highlights for Bulldogs fans in 2011, with the flyer scoring a league-high-equalling 23 tries.
This season, though, many experts predict Hasler’s new team will claw their way back into premiership contention. They feel the Bulldogs’ promising youngsters and inconsistent first-graders can rise to stardom and consistency and, along with their handful of seasoned professionals, bring joy to the Belmore faithful. But a lot has to happen for the Bulldogs to become genuine title contenders…
How They’ll Play It: Expect a more disciplined, diligent and dynamic Doggies outfit in 2012 under their new mentor. Hasler has a reputation for excellence after leading Manly to two premierships and seven consecutive finals appearances since 2005. Under Hasler last year, the Sea Eagles were unstoppable in attack, ranking highly in points scored (first), tries scored (first), line-breaks (fourth) and errors conceded (third fewest). The Bulldogs, conversely, suffered most in those areas – points scored (10th), tries scored (ninth), line-breaks (11th) and errors conceded (eighth) – so in some ways Hasler is the perfect fit at Belmore!
In defence it’s a similar story, particularly in territory surrendered: the Sea Eagles conceded the fewest metres (1277) per match, compared to the Bulldogs’ NRL-high 1465. The new coach will be tightening the screws at Belmore, and he’ll be expecting better performances from all individuals and the entire team unit on a regular basis.
Expect HUGE Things From: When he’s on song, Frank Pritchard is one of the most devastating players in the game… but in recent years star performances have been few and far between for the Kiwi international. In 2012, the Bulldogs will need the barnstorming back-rower to lead a pack missing the experience of recently retired captain Andrew Ryan.
Coach Hasler will also be looking to get more impact from Greg Eastwood, who has been similarly inconsistent since rejoining the club last season. For the ’Dogs to be a premiership threat, their young halves need room to think, create and move, and forwards such as Eastwood and Pritchard need to lay that platform. (Only Aiden Tolman managed to average more than 100 metres last season for Canterbury.)
English import James Graham is predicted to have a big impact at his new club, too. The red-headed prop has played 220 games for St Helens and made 19 appearances for England, and he brings to the club a thirst for hard work and a willingness to take the ball forward even into the most brutal defensive lines.
Bonus Points: Last season the Bulldogs proved the experts at providing long-range entertainment, scoring more tries (27) from inside their own half than any other team in the NRL. Pint-sized fullback Barba was particularly deadly, scoring 13 of those tries himself. While the new coaching staff might have many challenges to face to get the Bulldogs circa 2012 into premiership shape, their creative football deep inside their own half isn’t one of the areas. If the coaching staff can polish other areas of need and harness the obvious attacking potential, there’s plenty for Doggies fans to get excited about.
They’re Really Going To Miss: The Bulldogs won’t be the same without their retired former captain Andrew Ryan. ‘Bobcat’, who last year averaged 86.8 metres and 39.4 tackles a game, was a cornerstone of Canterbury outfits since 2003, and a player who never shirked his responsibilities. The Bulldogs will miss Ryan’s competitiveness, leadership and willingness to roll up his sleeves do the ‘one-percenters’. Des Hasler will need someone to step up and plug Ryan’s sizeable absence.
It’s Time To Deliver: If their forwards regularly lay a platform for their backs, a lot will then fall on the shoulders of the Bulldogs’ playmakers. Last season halfback Trent Hodkinson and usual five-eighth partner Kris Keating (Josh Reynolds and Joel Romelo filled in at times) battled to break their opponents’ defensive line, supported by the Bulldogs’ alarming inability to score a heap of points. Hodkinson, it could be argued, suffered second-year syndrome after a whirlwind debut at Manly, and his partnership with Keating failed to ‘gel’ effectively. This season they need to do more.
With proven performers Barba at No.1 and captain Michael Ennis at No.9, the two other pieces of the Canterbury spine need to take shape. The Bulldogs will need their halves pairing to prove themselves to be competent, confident and creative for the club to march to the finals.
How’s Their Depth? It’s their one area of potential anguish. While they possess arguably the deepest pool of juniors in the NRL, the number of experienced and proven players is a worry. Particular concerns exist in the halves (with Keating and Hodkinson their standout options) and in the centres, following the departure of Jamal Idris.
The Bulldogs’ faithful will be crossing their fingers and toes for good luck on the injury front in 2012, and that lack of backline depth is an area coach Hasler will be looking to strengthen over coming seasons.
The positives are that Toyota Cup ‘veterans’ Josh Jackson, 21, and Dale Finucane, 20, are bursting for opportunities at the top level. They’ll provide more than adequate cover should a regular be injured – and they may just hang onto their jerseys when they get that chance. Jackson is a second-rower who scored five tries and averaged 123 metres with 29 tackles last season. His game blends strength with skill – he made 82 tackle busts and tallied 33 offloads. Finucane made a huge impact at both lock forward (14 games) and prop (11 games), averaging 137 and 160 metres respectively and averaging 31 tackles.
Under-20s: Last year’s Toyota Cup was sweet and sour for the Bulldogs: a preliminary final slamming – after a sixth-place finish – a tough pill for fans to swallow.
After withstanding the fancied Storm in Week Two, the Bulldogs’ under-20s faced eventual premiers the Warriors in Week Three of the finals… and were smashed 64-0.
“It was a disappointing way to finish but the boys played so well the week before against Melbourne, when we were long odds, to get through to that stage,” coach Andy Patmore tells NRL.com.
This year the ‘puppies’ will be without their three stars from 2011, with Toyota Cup Team of the Year reps Dale Finucane and Tim Lafai, plus Josh Jackson, graduating to the NRL squad.
Patmore said the trio had a big impact last season, but added the club was in the process of unearthing more stars to fill the void.
“There’s a lot of young talent at the club this year… some very exciting prospects including a few Australian Schoolboys from the SG Ball side,” Patmore says.
Insiders tell us two-time Australian Schoolboys prop David Klemmer, a monster standing 190cm tall and weighing 120kg, is one to watch for 2012.
The Coach: It seems, at least for this season, coach Des Hasler can do no wrong. Following his controversial exit from Manly, 2012 has always been somewhat of a ‘trial’ season for Hasler and the Bulldogs – a year he was not meant to be at Canterbury and a season he can find his feet and slowly develop a team he genuinely believes can win the comp. But Hasler, being the ultra-competitive person he is, won’t settle for that – he’ll be doing everything he can to complete a whirlwind transformation starting this season. Either way, there’s little pressure on the new Doggies coach who’s joined a club just finished smarting from recent turmoil. Must be nice!
Predicted Finish: Without established playmakers, it’s hard to predict big things at Belmore… but with a premiership-winning mentor calling the shots anything is possible. Hasler has a habit and a history of turning unproven playmakers into premiership winners and if he can do that to the Bulldogs’ halves, a finals finish could be on the cards. This season, though, we think it might be too tough an ask. We’ll shoot at 9th.
Toyota NRL Dream Team view from NRL.com's Lone Scout
The gun: Workhorse prop Aiden Tolman was the most indispensable front-rower in Toyota NRL Dream Team last year, and he should be the same again in 2012, even with the arrival of James Graham.
The dark horses: Young forwards Josh Jackson and Dale Finucane will be very, very good value if they get promoted to the first-grade side this season.