Bulldogs 2014 Season Preview
This time last year they were regarded as a genuine competition heavyweight, a beaten but worthy 2012 grand finalist on the cusp of a successful dynasty under a successful coach in Des Hasler.
Fast forward 12 months though and the Bulldogs are a troublesome unit, flat out finding a fullback.
While stories continue to abound on whether Josh Hoffman can negotiate his way out of Red Hill - and how the Dogs are throwing the welcome mat out for him - for the moment, Hasler is left to fill a small but significant hole from a bunch of fill-ins and kids.
To put it bluntly: finding a replacement for Belmore's Brilliance Personified in Ben Barba will make or break Canterbury-Bankstown's 2014 season.
Considered premiership contenders alongside the likes of Melbourne, Manly and the Rabbitohs last pre-season, Hasler performed a more than credible job in dragging his team to the finals despite a slew of injuries (Sam Kasiano, Barba), suspensions (Krisnan Krisnan Inu twice, James Graham) and off-field distractions (Barba, Todd Greenberg leaving).
In the end, the Bulldogs finished a not-shabby sixth, bundled out of the race by a fast-finishing Knights team in an Elimination Final.
Whether Hasler and his team can match - nay, improve - this year depends on how much more he can extract from a squad that's relied so heavily on their Dally M-winning fullback over the past two years.
The answer to that is unlikely to be found in their handful of new recruits - of which former premiership-winning Bulldog Reni Maitua is the only notable addition - while it's an intangible whether promising youngsters Pat Templeman, Tyrone Phillips and Drury Low are ready to step up.
Veterans Sam Perrett, Inu and Josh Morris are all capable fill-ins at custodian, but hardly scream out as a long-term solution either, leaving a mid-season purchase of a Test-calibre player like Hoffman as the only forward-thinking solution.
The rest of the team remains largely unchanged. NSW Origin rep Josh Reynolds' star continues to rise, big men James Graham, Aiden Tolman and Sam Kasiano will resume switching between front row and halfback, and Tony Williams will look to get the critics off his back with more impact.
Small, subtle manoeuvres, like Pritchard being named co-captain alongside Mick Ennis and Maitua's return off the bench, will liven things up but all in all, the fullback conundrum means the Bulldogs will fly under the radar this year. Although we're guessing Hasler won't mind that.
Gains: Damien Cook (Dragons), Reni Maitua (Eels), Pat O'Hanlon (Eels), Chase Stanley (Dragons), Tyrone Phillips (Rabbitohs), Kayne Brennan (Dragons).
Losses: Ben Barba (Broncos), Danny Galea (Widnes), Dene Halatau (Wests Tigers), Kris Keating (Hull FC), Martin Taupau (Wests Tigers).
How They'll Play It
Through the unique playmaking skills of the world's biggest halfbacks, Sam Kasiano and James Graham. That's how they got to the Grand Final in 2012, and that's how they got to the finals last year. The difference missing last year was a fit, healthy and happy Barba.
As far as attacking approaches go, it's a little unconventional, bordering on lunacy, but it's called making the most of the skills on your roster. It's worked for the consistent Bulldogs for two years.
Expect HUGE Things From
We're going to take a stab here and literally expect huge things from gargantuan prop David Klemmer. Let us paint the picture: at 200cm and 120kg, he looks down on Kasiano, and is just a couple of kilos lighter.
The 20-year-old appeared four times off the bench in his rookie campaign before suffering a season-ending knee injury, but that was only after penning a three-year, $1 million contract extension. Such are the expectations on the kid.
It's a crowded prop rotation as it is but, if he gets any decent minutes, expect a George Burgess-like impact from the young fella.
The Question Marks
Their dubious attacking kicking game that forced just 1.1 line dropouts a game last year, the second fewest in the competition.
But, given it was only a premiership-winning Roosters outfit that averaged fewer, and the fact that only five teams averaged more points last season than the Dogs, we'll gloss over it. So really, it's just the fullback dilemma and ...
Who Needs To Lift
The gentle giant that is Tony Williams; although no-one out Belmore way ever thought he'd be regarded as this gentle. Bulldogs fans grew frustrated with Williams' passive performances in his first season with the club last year, an assessment the former NSW Origin representative agreed with earlier this month when he told NRL.com he "couldn't get any worse".
At his best, the second-rower they call T-Rex can single-handedly rip through an army of defenders. But at his most benign, he's a passenger in a side without a lot of strike weapons, making him an easy target for the critics.
How's Their Depth?
To be frank, it's looking rather shallow, and probably a little green. Other than newcomer Chase Stanley, who's averaged just 12 games a year since debuting in 2007, the depth chart mainly consists of a swathe of promising under-20s graduates.
Moses Mbye, Pat Templeman, Lloyd Perrett, Ed Murphy, Corey Thompson, Tyrone Phillips, Kayne Brennan and John Sila are all talented kids but are yet to taste first grade, while forwards Pat O'Hanlon, Tim Browne and Klemmer at least have a dozen or so games under their belts.
He preaches a mean defence and can come up with a solid game plan, but more importantly, the man with the flowing locks is as competitive as they come - he hates losing as much as he does giving a media interview. It's no secret the Bulldogs are scouring the market for a fullback, but re-signing Des Hasler could be their most important signature of the season.
NRL Fantasy Bankers
A stable line-up means stable fantasy options, which means reliable output from Fantasy Bankers in Graham and Reynolds. If you're looking for a cheapie though, we shouldn't need to remind you to keep an eye on the fullback role.
Probably not elite enough to be top-four material, but definitely not bad enough to be wooden spoon contenders. So that leaves us with the middle eight, and the Hasler factor might be enough to see them in September.
1. Sam Perrett; 2. Mitch Brown; 3. Josh Morris; 4. Krisnan Inu; 5. Tim Lafai; 6. Josh Reynolds; 7.Trent Hodkinson; 8. Aiden Tolman; 9. Michael Ennis (c); 10. Sam Kasiano; 11. Frank Pritchard (C); 12. Josh Jackson; 13. Greg Eastwood; 14. James Graham; 15. Tony Williams; 16. Dale Finucane; 17. Reni Maitua.