Take a look at the Bulldog's road to the finals as they prepare to play the Sea Eagles in week one of the Telstra Premiership Finals.
1. Lethal from long range
Canterbury certainly claimed the title of rugby league’s entertainers in 2012, with their ever-alert attack scoring almost half of their season tries from moves that originated longer than 20 metres away from the opposition try-line. No side scored more times from long range, with the ’Dogs crossing for an NRL-high 19 tries that were kick-started inside their own half. Time and again we saw attacking teams put in a kick, then less than a minute later stand on their goal-line watching a conversion attempt after a Bulldogs counter-attack. The blue-and-whites were even more potent triggering raids just inside the opposition half, scoring a staggering 28 tries from moves that started between the 20-metre line and halfway.
2. Offloading at will
Second phase has become a huge weapon under new coach Des Hasler, with the Bulldogs leading all-comers in 2012 with 12.7 offloads per match (up from fifth most last year). Five of their players have tallied more than 20 offloads, led by five-eighth Josh Reynolds (39) and prop Sam Kasiano (35). This spread of skill from the forwards through the backs guarantees the Bulldogs can keep the plays going no matter who gets the ball, or where they are on the paddock. That’s tough to coach against.
3. Tenacious ‘D’
The Bulldogs’ defence has really bared their teeth in 2012, conceding the fewest line-breaks and tallying the fewest tackle misses. Consequently they concede the fewest points and tries scored, too. They really work for each other; this spirit has seen them become the benchmark for tackling effectiveness (87.8 per cent). Perhaps the greatest pointer to their transformation lies with the fact that last year they surrendered more metres than any team every week – this year they’ve countered that by upwards of 80 metres every game. Hooker Michael Ennis leads the way with 38 tackles per match, with props James Graham (33) and Aiden Tolman (31) missing just one tackle per game.
4. Barba’s cut
Has there been a more naturally gifted attacking rugby league player? Matthew Bowen… Benji Marshall… Billy Slater… Greg Inglis… no question they’re all superstars – but no-one has ever before shown the ability to turn games on their heads so often and against the odds like Ben Barba has in 2012. The custodian has an unrivalled knack for reading plays; it’s like his mind is functioning five seconds ahead of the clock. Even when the opposition plugs the ball deep and follows their kick up with a good chase, Barba is still a chance of hurting them. Case in point: his arrogant length-of-the-field sprint for a try in Round 10 after seemingly being ringed by Parramatta’s kick-chasers. Little wonder Barba was equal top of the try-scorers list (with 21), made the most tackle-breaks (with 163) as well as the equal most line-breaks alongside Akuila Uate (with 25). Not to mention the 22 try assists he laid on for team-mates. He’s a freak.
5. Humming engine
Over the past few years the Bulldogs’ forwards have been a largely no-nonsense, tradesman-like bunch in attack, grinding out adequate gains but relying heavily on Frank Pritchard for their wow factor. Not this year. Under Des Hasler the Dogs forwards now comprise ball-playing front-rowers, gifted offloaders, mobile runners and resolute defenders. Englishman James Graham (127 metres, 32 tackles) has been an unsung hero in his first NRL season, getting better with every game, while Sam Kasiano sprung from nowhere to become the most potent front-rower with the ball in hand. Time and again Hasler has used Kasiano as a second halfback in midfield, attracting attention from the defence before shooting the ball deep behind a decoy runner to initiate a slick backline sweep. (Just look at the space he created back in Round 9 against the Eels, with Josh Morris the beneficiary.) Throw in Aiden Tolman’s 130 metres and 31 tackles, Dene Halatau’s solid defence and the threat Pritchard poses offloading on the left edge and the Dogs are really barking. Significantly, a heap of pressure has been lifted from the shoulder of Michael Ennis who is simply ploughing through his defensive work. Ennis leads his team-mates for tackles with 38 per game.
6. Depth and cover
The ’Dogs hit a snag mid-season with injuries to key outside backs Bryson Goodwin, Steve Turner and Steve Lafai… but they never missed a beat, thanks to the astute mid-season recruitments of unwanted Krisnan Inu from the Warriors and disenchanted Sam Perrett from the Roosters. Inu’s impact in particular was staggering after joining in Round 12. On debut against the Roosters he scored two tries – his first just 13 minutes in – plus he threw an outrageous, ballet-like pass assist with his body over the sideline for Frank Pritchard to score a crucial try. The next week he edged blue and whites ahead against the Rabbitohs with a field-goal five minutes from fulltime, then threw the final pass for David Stagg’s match-winner. Also Kris Keating has been an unsung hero, more than just holding his own during Trent Hodkinson’s long layoff through injury.
7. Josh threat Mk I
There’s more than a touch of Anthony Mundine about Josh Reynolds, who has seized the No.6 jersey this year with an astounding array of attacking skills to complement his fullback Ben Barba. His carry of the football and distinctive stride are reminiscent of The Man – as is his devastating pace and ability to sniff out a try. Reynolds has scored 10 tries – the equal most by any Bulldogs five-eighth in a season – made nine line-breaks and offered 19 try assists to announce a true star. An example? He simply had no right to score against the Knights in Round 22; despite being ringed by defenders and from a standing start he cut through to score in scintillating fashion. It’s likely more of the same lies ahead in the finals.
8. Josh threat Mk II
Josh Morris completes the Bulldogs’ lethal attacking triumvirate. In career-best form, the NSW strike centre’s presence on the left edge has bamboozled sides all year. He’s provided the perfect back-up for Barba and Reynolds – that is, when he hasn’t been launching raids of his own. Morris has crossed for 17 tries, just four fewer than NRL top try-scorer Barba, and leads all centres in the comp for line-breaks with 18 to date. The bad news for his semi-final opponents is that Morris tends to score in clusters – he has scored two hat-tricks and three doubles already in 2012.
9. Digging deep
It hasn’t always been plain sailing for the ’Dogs in 2012. They needed to steady their ship after losing five of seven matches from Rounds 4 to 10, including a hat-trick of defeats from Rounds 6 through 8. They bounced back from a 25-14 loss to the Gold Coast in Round 10 (led 6-4 halftime) to embark on a wonderful 12-game winning streak that thrust them to the top of the ladder. Incredibly, aside from their Round 24 win over the Tigers in golden point their smallest winning margin all season was just five points (v South Sydney in Round 13). They’ve won matches by eight or more points on a whopping 16 occasions. And being behind on the scoreboard doesn’t frazzle them: they trailed Brisbane by 14 points after 14 minutes in Round 23 but bounced back.
10. Putting the boot in
As if trying to contain their runners isn’t enough of a challenge the Bulldogs present one of the biggest threats when kicking for their outside men They’ve scored a whopping 27 tries off the boot – ranking them second in the comp behind the Raiders who only overtook the ’Dogs with four tries of their own in their head-to-head showdown in Round 25. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a well-directed cross-field kick early in the tackle count – like the one for Sam Perrett to score against Manly in Round 20 – a towering bomb or a pinpoint grubber, the Bulldogs’ attacking kicking game keeps coming up with results.