Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs season preview
Twice in the past three years the Bulldogs have laced up their Sunday best for the Big Day, only to be left stranded at the end of the night holding the bouquet.
And it doesn't matter if there are plenty more fish – or premierships – in the sea, it still hurts.
This is the problem facing the famous 'Berries this year: the maddening presence of a monkey growing on their backs, and the anxious seven-month torture of getting back to the altar and ridding themselves of the wretched thing.
They really should have no qualms getting there, not with the addition of a shiny new plaything in Brett Morris, the kind of player people might believe could take you to the top of the tree in the League's playground.
They still have their British Bulldog in James Graham, a now able-bodied soldier in Josh Morris, two Origin halves and a forward pack that can toss it around like they're trotting the globe from Harlem.
Gone, however, is their middle man, their rock, in the always-jawing, never-stopping Michael Ennis.
In his place, one of the most promising young hookers in the country, and a kid entrusted with controlling that ever-important ruck in centre-field. An adjustment, definitely. A risk? Maybe. But one they believe was worth taking.
And you don't get a CV like Des Hasler's unless you know a thing or two about building a winning team, and Wayne Bennett is the only other coach in this league that has more premiership rings on his finger.
The locals will get a chance to toast the unofficial mayor of Belmore when the Dogs host a game at their spiritual home for the first time 16 years.
Gains: Michael Lichaa (Sharks), Curtis Rona (Cowboys), Brett Morris (Dragons), Jarrod McInally (Easts Tigers)
Losses: Michael Ennis (Sharks), Mitch Brown (Sharks), Reni Maitua (Featherstone Rovers), Krisnan Inu (French Rugby), Lachlan Burr (Titans), John Sila (Wests Tigers), Dale Finucane (Storm)
What We Know
We know there'll be there in the business end, and we know this because 15 of the 17 players who pushed the Rabbitohs most of the way in last year's decider will be available for Hasler in Round 1. Quite simply, they're September specialists.
They're also experts at utilising, wait for it, the rugby league pass; a quality once only possessed by men wearing the six and seven jumpers. And by 'they', we mainly attribute it to the big fellas, whose unique ability to spin the ball sideways has proven quite problematic for opposition teams since Hasler took over three years ago. Genius.
We don't how the game's best winger will fare at fullback. And we'd also like to know if Josh Reynolds and Trent Hodkinson can play at a consistent, Origin-calibre level as well, improving what was at times a dull attack last year that more often than not forced the then-skipper in the No.9 to will his team to victory.
James Graham replaces Michael Ennis in the captaincy role, but how Lichaa fares in Ennis's old hooker position is another mini-mystery. The kid who'll be wearing the No.9 was definitely a 'known' in the under-20s competition. Now with the big fellas? We're not so sure.
But the most important question the locals are asking can't be answered for another seven months: Can their side take the next step and win it all?
Rookie To Watch
Adam Elliott. It turns out Bega – real town, real cheese – can make real footballers too. Bulldogs fans were dealt a blow just before the new year when south coast product Dale Finucane left for greener pastures and heavier minutes in Melbourne. But in Tathra talent Adam Elliott, the club finds itself with another rugged second-rower whose resume is almost unmatched by the rest of the pups in Hasler's kennel. Last year's Australian Schoolboys captain and NSW under-20s representative got the call-up to train with first grade over the summer and by all accounts hasn't done himself any harm with the big boys. There won't be too many opportunities for rookies this year, but this kid could jag a game or two.
Room For Improvement
More tries, please! It's difficult to argue against the methodology of last year's grand finalists, but we're certain they'd like to cross the stripe more often this year. Their 76 regular season four-pointers was less than competition stragglers Canberra, Newcastle, Parramatta and St George Illawarra last season. A bloke like Brett Morris (14 tries in 18 games in 2014) can almost single-handedly fix that.
A grand final fullback in Sam Perrett isn't a terrible back-up in the No.1, while new recruits Curtis Nona and Matt Frawley could leap Corey Thompson for a wing spot. Should one of the centres go down, Chase Stanley can do a job, or they can finally opt for the return of Jacob Loko. Moses Mbye gives Hasler cover in either halves position and Damien Cook is the only other specialist No.9 on the books. The aforementioned Elliott, Antonio Kaufusi, Shaun Lane, Jarrod McInally, Pat O'Hanlon and Lloyd Perrett will provide the bulk of the depth in the forwards that looks like will start with Kasiano at prop and Tolman shifting to lock.
Graham ($448,000) is a rock solid buy in the front row, with an average of 50 Fantasy points a week, while David Klemmer ($191,000) could be good value if his game time increases this season. Lichaa ($261,000) should rise in price significantly during the season with a larger role this year, while Brett Morris ($315,000) is a smokey to be among the top Fantasy fullbacks in 2015.
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Eleven years as coach. Two premierships, five grand finals and 10 trips to the finals, which are numbers that have Hasler talked about as the best coach of the modern era. And it's hard to argue with them. The coach who says the least in the pressers – but has the most hair – has yet to win a title in his three years at Belmore, but after being handed a new deal last January that'll keep him as Top Dog until 2017, we can't bet against him getting one before then.
Depending on your thoughts on their former skipper, last year's grand finalists look to have improved over the summer with the signing of Morris. Other than that, not much has changed at Belmore and their familiarity can only be a good thing. How much of a good thing? For those of us here at NRL.com, enough to predict them as minor premiers. The team to beat. NRL.com prediction: 1st.