Bulldogs' 2014 Season Review
Let's not beat around the bush. This season review was almost ready to go around a month ago.
After limping into the finals off the back of a Round 26 golden point loss to the lowly Gold Coast Titans, the Bulldogs were given no hope to make it past the first week of the finals after jagging seventh spot and a showdown in Melbourne against the Storm.
The lack of faith in the Dogs fuelled their purpose and an AAMI Park ambush followed.
A Tim Lafai hat-trick and Greg Eastwood's best performance of the season saw Melbourne flogged 28-4 and our initial season review in tatters.
After their Melbourne heroics, an exceptional golden-point victory against the Sea Eagles and a hard-earned win over the Panthers in the preliminary final booked a date with destiny against the Rabbitohs this past Sunday.
In Michael Ennis's absence, the Dogs were led into battle by inspirational prop James Graham and halfback Trent Hodkinson in one of the toughest grand finals in recent memory.
While they stuck solid for 73 minutes, three Rabbitohs tries in the final stages saw the Bulldogs fall 30-6, the scoreline in their second grand final loss in three seasons in no way reflecting the nature of the game.
Coach Des Hasler was not prepared to dissect the game in the aftermath, and who can blame him? The season is done and dusted, it is just a matter now of focusing on the positives.
The Bulldogs' seven-game winning streak to kick off the year and the fact said streak came to end thanks to the club missing four key figures (Josh Morris, Josh Reynolds, Trent Hodkinson and Tony Williams) due to NSW Origin duty certainly comes to mind.
As does their ability to turn it around when all seemed lost in the final stages of the regular season with the club heading into finals footy with two straight losses to boot and only three wins out of their final eight regular competition games of the year.
However, with form rearing its head at the right end of the year Hodkinson credited the basic fundamentals of the game towards the Bulldogs resurgence.
"It was pretty simple – we have just been holding the footy. The belief was always there no doubt but you can't win games with a 60-70 per cent completion rate and 40 per cent possession," said the halfback, following their thrilling win over Manly in week two of the finals.
Sure it's clichéd but it indeed rang true in the latter part of the year, putting them in good stead for 2015.
Where They Excelled: The Bulldogs were the biggest metre eaters in the competition during the regular season, with a total of 36,037 run metres. Buoyed by the front row partnership of Aiden Tolman (2550 metres) and James Graham (3403 – fifth in the competition) with Sam Perrett supporting competently at the back (2902), the Bulldogs were always a chance of dominating the territorial battle.
Canterbury were quite the disciplined bunch as well with errors and missed tackles not much of a worry throughout the season. Behind the Cowboys and eventual premiers South Sydney, the Dogs leaked 595 missed tackles – well below the competition average of 703.9. They also made the third fewest errors with 239 to their name, just behind Newcastle and North Queensland.
Where They Struggled: Their discipline was lacking however when it came to dealing with the referee. The Bulldogs copped the sixth most penalties competition-wide (169 conceded). In saying this, scoring points was far and away their biggest problem. Just ahead of the Wests Tigers, the Sharks and Titans, who all finished in the bottom four on the ladder, the Bulldogs unbelievably scored the fourth fewest points in 2014. In a massive concern for next year, the Bulldogs only crossed for 76 tries and scored 446 points. To put this in perspective, this season's leading points-scorer Johnathan Thurston managed 208 on his own in 2014.
Missing In Action: There were six players who missed a chunk of the season which impacted the club at different points. Co-captain Frank Pritchard's early-season pectoral injury saw him restricted to 10 games while an ankle injury ended prop Sam Kasiano's year after only 14 games. Chase Stanley missed nine games while centre Josh Morris (knee injury and Origin), five-eighth Josh Reynolds (twice suspended and Origin) and forward Tim Browne (fractured skull) missed seven games each. Prop Aiden Tolman was sorely missed in six games as well thanks to a hamstring complaint.
Turning Point: Week one of the finals. The Bulldogs were expected to bow out of the season in the opening week of the finals series considering how they were travelling and who they were coming up against. Two losses – to the Rabbitohs and the Titans (golden point) – heading into the finals didn't help their cause especially going up against finals specialists in the Storm. The script was there for Melbourne to write; instead the Bulldogs spoiled the party. It was the beginning of the Dogs' finals revival and it almost ended in the ultimate triumph.
Best Games: Besides their three finals conquests, the Canterbury's best games of the regular season came in their other two clashes with the Storm. A Round 4 effort over in Perth saw the Bulldogs dominate the Storm 40-12 but it was their corresponding game in Round 18 which saw the 'Dogs of War' show their true colours. It wasn't the most exciting game or even one to go into the season highlight reel. Instead, it was a game involving pure grit, determination and solid defence which saw the Belmore boys record a 6-4 win at AAMI Park.
Worst Games: We keep harping on about it so it's no surprise the Dogs' Round 26 loss to the Titans is one of their worst efforts especially considering they were up 18-0 at halftime. Apart from this, their 46-18 flogging from the Tigers in Round 19 kick-started a spiral of losses which saw them win a further three games during the regular season. Reynolds' worst nightmare is also up there in their 41-10 loss to the Broncos in Round 22. The five-eighth was sin-binned after smashing Alex Glenn high, tripping Ben Barba and kicking Sam Thaiday, compounding a nightmare of an evening for the Bulldogs.
Hold Your Head High: Making the grand final and winning the New South Wales Blues their first series in eight attempts – you better believe Hodkinson's neck will be sore after he holds his head high over the off-season. British brute Graham took his game to another level in the finals and it will only mean bigger things when he becomes the marquee British import in the NRL in 2015. Alongside Josh Jackson, Graham played every game this season for the Bulldogs. Williams and Dale Finucane only missed a game each as well. Rookie winger Corey Thompson should also remain confident after playing out his first full year of NRL this season, with the 24-year-old earning a one-year contract extension for his troubles.
Conclusion: Despite losing captain Michael Ennis and winger Mitch Brown to the Sharks and Krisnan Inu to the French Rugby mid-season, the future is certainly bright at Belmore. In reaction to these losses, compounded with fringe players Lachlan Burr (Titans) and John Sila (Tigers) moving on as well, the Bulldogs are in good stead to go one better in 2015. While Cronulla have taken two Dogs, they returned fire by signing promising hooker Michael Lichaa, who missed only five tackles in 15 appearances for the Sharks this year. They will also be boosted by Cowboys utility Curtis Rona and Parramatta outside back Jacob Loko who will only grow under the tutelage of Hasler.
Wins: 13 (three in finals)
Losses: 11 (one in finals)
Position (after 26 rounds): 7th
Position (after the Finals): 2nd
Home Record: 6-6
Away Record: 7-5
Longest Winning Streak: 7 (Round 4-10)
Longest Losing Streak: 4 (Round 19-23)
Players Used: 27
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 76 (13th)
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 78 (equal 6th fewest)