Gains: Tony Williams (Sea Eagles).
Losses: Jonathan Wright (Sharks), David Stagg (Broncos), Bryson Goodwin (Rabbitohs), Luke MacDougall (retired), Jake Foster (Raiders), James Gavet (Tigers), Tupou Sopoaga (Sharks), Corey Payne (retired).
It was all looking so good for the Bulldogs: 2012 minor premiers and grand finalists; a forward pack the envy of the league – bolstered further this season by the arrival of Tony Williams; and a coach that will leave no stone unturned to ensure his side’s success.
Then comes news of Ben Barba’s suspension – and suddenly Canterbury’s whole world has been turned upside down.
At the time of writing there was no word on exactly how long Barba’s personal issues would absent him from rugby league and the Bulldogs, other than the statement by CEO Todd Greenberg that the 23-year-old was a sick young man in desperate need of help. Early indications are that it could be anywhere from six weeks to six months.
And while Canterbury is anything but a one-man team, there is no doubting just how big an influence Barba has on the side’s attack.
The 2012 Dally M Medal winner was simply unstoppable last season – scoring an NRL-high 22 tries to go with 27 line-breaks, 23 try assists, 21 line-break assists and 171 tackle-breaks. You can’t replace those numbers.
So what now for the Bulldogs? Well, while they will certainly miss Barba’s game-breaking ability, it’s not all doom and gloom out Belmore way.
In fact, the foundations for their surge up the NRL ladder last season were very much built around the power and skill of their forward pack and the likes of Aiden Tolman, James Graham, Sam Kasiano and Frank Pritchard. Their props were particularly damaging, with opposition sides struggling to cope with their ball-playing at the line.
Of course, England international Graham will miss the opening two months of the season through suspension and, like Barba, his presence will be missed; however there is plenty of excitement in Sydney’s west about his likely replacement – hulking 19-year-old prop David Klemmer. The 120-kilogram giant was named Dally M Toyota Cup Player of the Year in 2012 and was the only player to run more than 4000 metres (4134 all up) at a whopping 180 per game! And let’s not forget that the addition of wrecking-ball Williams – another prize recruit from old rivals Manly – adds yet another imposing figure on the edges.
Canterbury can also boast a near identical backline, with the exception of Barba, to that which ran riot last season, with boom youngster Josh Reynolds looking to build on his superb 2012 while out wide veteran winger Steve Turner returns from injury (in place of Cronulla-bound Jonathan Wright) to partner Josh Morris, Krisnan Inu and Sam Perrett. Inu and Perrett are the early front-runners to replace Barba in the No.1 jersey.
All eyes will inevitably be on the Bulldogs over the coming weeks to gauge the impact of the loss of their star fullback. In all probability, crossing the stripe won’t come quite as easily as it did in 2012. But with the majority of their squad returning to do it all again, they will be eyeing another top-four finish.
How They’ll Play It
Much the same as last season: their big forwards implementing their skill before the line to run their opponents ragged. The Bulldogs revolutionised the way their big men took the ball forward last season – often using footwork and a surprisingly adept passing game to break open the opposition defence. They finished the 2012 regular season with more offloads than any side (305) with Sam Kasiano (37) and Frank Pritchard (33) particularly effective. Notably, they also ranked second (behind Cronulla) for total metres made from hit-ups with 12,559 metres at 523 per game. They threaten to be even more devastating in 2013 with Tony Williams – who averaged 119 metres for the Sea Eagles last season – joining their pack.
Expect a HUGE Year From
Steve Turner. The veteran speedster missed most of the Bulldogs’ minor premiership campaign last season after rupturing his patella tendon against Manly in Round 8 – having to watch on from afar as they brought in replacements Krisnan Inu and Sam Perrett mid-season before embarking on their run to the grand final. Turner has plenty to prove to the Bulldogs coaching staff in 2013, given that he is off contract at the end of the year and has plenty of competition for his spot. He has scored 81 tries in 160 career games and will be looking to add plenty more this season with the Bulldogs in search of extra strike power to cover for the absence of Ben Barba.
There will be plenty of pressure on five-eighth Josh Reynolds to repeat his brilliant form of last season – particularly given how heavily Canterbury relies on his playmaking. Reynolds was by far the Bulldogs’ dominant half in 2012 with 20 try assists and 10 line-break assists from his 27 appearances. Slightly concerning, though, is the fact that he almost doubled the contribution of halves partner Kris Keating (11 try assists and six line-break assists) – while Keating’s main rival for the No.7 jersey, Trent Hodkinson, couldn’t come up with a single try or line-break assist in six games. (It’s worth noting too that while Canterbury were the masters of long-range tries last season, they ranked 13th for tries scored inside 10 metres with 37.)
The Question Marks
Obviously the absence of Ben Barba poses infinite questions – none more pressing than how it will directly affect Canterbury’s try-scoring ability.
The Bulldogs’ forward pack was rightly praised for the opportunities their skills created in 2012, but much of the time it was Barba looming up on the inside to make that break in the first place. It was also Barba capitalising on poor kick-chases as he raced away on another long-range break. In all the Bulldogs scored 19 tries from inside their own half – easily more than any side – while their 28 tries from between 20-50 metres out was also the most in the NRL. All of that potentially flies out the window without Barba’s running game to make it happen. Time will tell whether they can adjust.
Who Needs To Lift?
Whoever replaces Barba at fullback. We see Sam Perrett as the obvious candidate, given that he spent plenty of time there at the Roosters during Anthony Minichiello’s run of injuries a few years back. Perrett is renowned as both an excellent support player and a prolific metre-eater and although he won’t provide the unique brilliance of Barba he can at least limit the damage of his absence.
Perrett averaged 120 metres on the wing for Canterbury last year; however it is his 2008 and 2009 seasons for the Roosters – when Minichiello endured lengthy injury lay-offs – that are most notable. In 2008 he ran for more metres than any other player with 3720 at 149 per game, before backing up with 3401 at 142 per game the following year. A repeat of those figures would come in handy for the Bulldogs this season.
How’s Their Depth
Great in the forwards – and about to be tested out wide! As it stands, the obvious options for coach Des Hasler in the backline are to move either Inu or Perrett to fullback (possibly even Steve Turner), with either Tim Lafai or Mitch Brown coming into the side as well. They will be hoping to avoid a similar run with injury on the edges as the one that forced them to bring in Inu and Perrett 12 months ago.
That said, their forward depth looks great, with the likes of Marty Taupau and youngster David Klemmer bolstering their stocks up front while their back-row options – Frank Pritchard, Tony Williams, Greg Eastwood, Dene Halatau and Josh Jackson – look ominous for rival sides.
Dream Team Bankers
Bulldogs fans who found themselves onto a winner with Ben Barba and James Graham in their sides last season will need a rethink this time around. Yep, it’s a cruel twist of fate that two of their most reliable Dream Team scorers (averaging 50.71 and 45.96 points respectively) won’t be there to kick off the 2013 season, but all is not lost.
At least three other Canterbury players can be relied upon to notch up a good score each week including Aiden Tolman (42.46), Josh Reynolds (49.67) and new recruit Tony Williams (47.46).
However, our hot tip is rookie prop David Klemmer who is a bargain buy at just $101,600. James Graham’s absence during the early rounds could well open the door for Klemmer, who is renowned for playing long minutes.
Des Hasler could have booked a job for life had Canterbury won the premiership last season. As it stands he just about has anyway. The Bulldogs’ prize signing of 12 months ago produced such a stunning turnaround in his first year at the club that the hierarchy has moved heaven and earth to provide him with whatever facilities he needs to continue that upward trend. He is already a hero among the Doggies faithful.
The Bulldogs have rolled over roughly half of their squad this season with a heap of young talent coming in to energise last season’s minor premiers however the club remain extremely confident that their NYC side will again feature heavily towards the top of the table.
Still leading the way for Andy Patmore’s men are Moses Mbye, Leilani Latu and Patrick Templeman, who all trained with the NRL squad over the summer, while giant prop David Klemmer looks likely to make his first grade debut during the early rounds but is still eligible to play Under-20s.
Keep an eye out for highly rated centre Dujean Liolevave, prop Herman Essese and back-rower Jack Crighton who have all joined the Bulldogs in 2013.
Are the Bulldogs still a top-two contender? Before Ben Barba’s enforced lay-off it was hard to go past them but there are now a few questions that need to be answered. We believe that their overall squad strength is still good enough for a top-four finish but recording back-to-back minor premierships might be a step beyond them without their star strike weapon. And of course given the circumstances, a slide cannot be totally ruled out. Time will tell.