Sidelined Ennis an inspiration: Ryan
When Andrew Ryan lifted the Telstra Premiership Trophy a decade ago, he became the first skipper in 69 years to do so in his first game as captain.
Now with top 'Dog Mick Ennis needing a miracle to take to the ANZ turf on Sunday night, Ryan is backing potential stand-in skippers James Graham and Trent Hodkinson to replicate his feat and lead the Bulldogs down the tunnel for the first time and on to grand final triumph.
As Ennis cut a forlorn figure last Saturday night, the two fractures in his left foot on ice as the blue and whites ground out an 18-12 win over Penrith, history looked to be pulling one of its famed repeating acts.
Almost 10 years ago to the day, talismanic Bulldogs skipper Steve Price was cut down by a knee injury, one game out from the 2004 decider.
The opponent was again Penrith. And Price was, just like the Cronulla-bound Ennis, playing his final game for the club having signed a deal with the Warriors for the following year.
The oft-turned pages of history show the Bulldogs went on to dust the Roosters 16-13 in one of the most enthralling grand finals in recent memory, with the sight of Price and Ryan standing victorious on the premiership dais, arms aloft and covered in champagne one of the enduring images of the modern era.
"'Pricey' was the leader of our club and we were all gutted for him, and winning it for him became a massive part of our week, even though we still had to focus on the actual game," Ryan tells NRL.com.
"Mick's the same as Pricey in the way he leads and goes about his business, he does whatever it takes to win and he leads from the front with that sheer competitiveness. If he's out they'll be doing it for him, definitely."
Graham's on field persona is cut from the same cloth as Ennis, while the motor that runs all day and produces 142 metres and 35 tackles a game is of the same calibre that saw Price rack up over 313 NRL games, 28 Origins and 16 Tests.
While Hodkinson was instructed by coach Des Hasler to handle the referees in Ennis's absence in the Preliminary Final, Graham was the undisputed leader in the trenches during the second half, clashing with anything and everything wearing Penrith colours as the 'Dogs held on for an inspirational win.
Hasler is yet to decide who will lead the Bulldogs on Sunday night, with club co-captain Frank Pritchard also a contender, though he is slated to start the match from the bench.
Neither Graham nor Hodkinson have officially had the bracketed 'c' against their name in the Big League program, while Pritchard has just the one game in charge to his name back in 2012, but Ryan says whoever Hasler dubs skipper has it in them to lead the Bulldogs to premiership glory.
"For James Graham, he's got everything in his kitbag, and he's already a leader for them," Ryan says. "He's a massive talker and he motivates his side in his actions.
"I was lucky enough to play alongside Jason Smith in my early days, and he was similar, he'd chase everything down and Nathan Hindmarsh and Aiden Tolman are the same. Graham and those blokes, they're the type of guys you want to play alongside, because they just keep chasing and fighting to the death, no matter what the scoreboard says.
"Hokko's (Hodkinson) just so solid and a confident player and he guides the side around the park, and Frankie Pritchard, he's been co-captain along with Mick and he's a big influence on that side as well. So whatever way they go I think they'll be pretty well served."
Ryan went on to become the Bulldogs longest-serving captain with 168 games in charge until his retirement at the end of 2011, with Ennis taking over until now. The key to that first outing as skipper on rugby league's biggest stage Ryan says, was treating it like any other game.
"It was all a bit of a blur but for me, (coach) Steve Folkes was really good," he says.
"He made it clear he didn't want me to change what I was doing, the message was to keep it the same and that it was business as usual.
"And then hopefully that rubbed off on the other blokes. You use what got you to that place to begin with, you don't go changing anything."
The Bulldogs, despite having only four players with grand final experience that day against the Roosters with 33 grand final caps between them, overcame a 13-6 half-time deficit to send Price out a winner in his final year in the club colours.
With the current Bulldogs side possessing the same ability to close out a tight finish, as they already have in 2014 with four one-point wins, Ryan believes Hasler's men hold a significant advantage over the Rabbitohs.
"They've shown game after game this year that you have to get everything out of yourself to beat that side," Ryan says.
"They're unbelievable. Their goal-line defence is incredible, they've got so many competitors and they're desperate to win obviously, and with Mick out they've got that extra motivation.
"If it's a tight one and they're still in it late in the game, I think the Bulldogs will get it."