Canterbury Bulldogs: 2018 NRL season preview
There have been changes aplenty at the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs in 2018 – with a new coach, captain, star playmaker and CEO – but can the new-look team rediscover its spark?
Kieran Foran looms as a quality buy in the halves if he stays injury free, and Kangaroos prop Aaron Woods will relish carting the ball up next to his good mate Dave Klemmer.
Coach Dean Pay understands the club culture, and despite arguably the toughest draw in the competition, fans won't tolerate anything but improvement this season.
Josh Jackson is a born leader, and look for the back-rower to take his game to a new level as captain.
Not much… except a new coach in Dean Pay, a new skipper in Josh Jackson, new board, new CEO, an overhauled playmaking spine including star recruit Kieran Foran and new fullback Moses Mbye and with all that a new playing style.
That last part will be music to the ears of not just supporters but also long-suffering rake Michael Lichaa, whose dynamic running game could emerge from a long hibernation, having shown glimpses over the closing rounds of 2017.
Much has been made of whether ousted coach Des Hasler 'got' the Bulldogs culture but there seems to be general agreement that Pay – who spent seven seasons in blue and white from 1989 to 1995 – does get it.
Someone else who no doubt gets it is Jackson, the hard-working Gulgong product whose elevation to the captaincy was unanimously welcomed by fans, team-mates and former players alike. The pair will be expected to helm a return to the top eight based on an aggressive and uncompromising style of play.
Things couldn't start off much tougher for the new-look Dogs of War, who face a big trek over to Perth to face the premiers Melbourne, who haven't lost a round one fixture since 2004.
After returning to Sydney to face title heavyweights the Roosters at Allianz Stadium the week after, Pay and his troops should have a good idea of what they need to work on.
Things stay tough for a while; the first of three five-day turnarounds comes on the back of a round six trip to Townsville into a Roosters re-match but a round-nine trip to Brisbane is mercifully their last plane trip of the season.
The gentle patch comes immediately thereafter; an eight-week stretch through rep-period includes a bye weekend and rep weekend off for many players plus six straight matches against teams that finished outside the top eight in 2017.
Seven of their final nine games are at ANZ or Belmore and they don't travel further than Wollongong in that period which will be a blessing if they make the top eight.
The stat that gives you hope
27.33 – Canterbury's average points scored per game in their three-match winning run to finish 2017. Yes, it's a new year and a new team, but barring ex-skipper James Graham and centre Brenko Lee virtually all the players from those three games are still at the club (Josh Reynolds and Sam Kasiano each missed two of those three games).
It showed a bit of what they were capable of with the shackles off and under Pay, that mentality and confidence boost could well stretch into 2018.
68 – Michael Lichaa's average run metres over those three games, compared to 45 per game over his previous 19 games. His 15 dummy half runs in round 25 was easily a season-high; that three-game burst included his only two try-assists for the year, one of his two tries and three of his seven season offloads.
And if 68 metres per game doesn't sound that high, bear in mind that among hookers, the best season-long average was Issac Luke's 57 per game, with Damien Cook and Lichaa in equal second at 45 for the season. The peerless Cameron Smith runs about 40 per game.
What you need to know NRL Fantasy-wise
Big men Aaron Woods ($716,000), Aiden Tolman ($703,000) and David Klemmer ($640,000) are the club's best Fantasy scorers but Michael Lichaa ($533,000) could eclipse them all if he plays 80 minutes each week and ups his running game.
All the club's backline players could improve if Canterbury's attack clicks into gear following a quiet year on that front.
Dean Pay will have plenty of eyes on him as he assumes control of the famous blue and whites this year. He can probably expect a little bit of a grace period – the club has certainly undergone some big changes of late – but he'll want to at least stay in touch with the top eight through the season to keep the wolves from his door.
He signed a two-year deal and it would take something pretty catastrophic for him not to be there in round one 2019 but in the eyes of the new board, the players, the fans and of course himself anything less than a finals finish will be considered a failure.
The big off-contract names are the Morris twins, Brett and Josh, plus half Matt Frawley and lock Greg Eastwood. Josh is in his 10th season at the club and will be desperate to make it a good one but it's very hard to see the brothers being together in blue and white past 2018.
Each showed in 2017 they are not yet a spent force in the NRL, but if they want to play on after 2018 may be forced to take up reduced deals elsewhere. It's a huge season for Frawley, whose form fell away a bit after a promising start to his NRL career.
The fact the Dogs have been looking so closely at other playmakers and have Jack Cogger inbound for 2019 suggest Frawley will be on the lookout for a new club if he can't stamp his place in the top grade. With Eastwood having battled a few health issues recently, he finds himself at a crossroads.
The Kiwi Test stalwart is unlikely to be at Belmore past this year but whether he can get back on the field to state his case to other clubs is the big question – if not expect him to call time on a decorated career or finish up in the UK.
The burning question
Has Kieran Foran still got it?
Back in 2014, Foran was one half of one of the most dominant and dynamic halves combinations in the NRL. Alongside Daly Cherry-Evans, Foran guided Manly to five straight top-four finishes, two grand finals and one premiership.
Cracks started appearing in 2015 as a ninth-place finish culminated in coach Geoff Toovey being shown the door and Foran following Brad Arthur to the Eels. An off-season ruined by an ongoing hamstring injury that hampered his 2015 season was exacerbated by tumultuous off-field issues, an abrupt departure from the club, and a largely unsuccessful (and again injury-hampered) season at the Warriors.
Can the one-time golden child rediscover his mojo and shake off those injury dramas at his new club? If he can, the Dogs are a red hot finals chance. If not, they are long odds to feature in September football.
This season is potentially the making of hooker Michael Lichaa. A junior Kangaroo and under-20s Origin rep for NSW, Lichaa has been a popular target for disgruntled Dogs fans during his three tackle-only seasons at Belmore.
A sparkling finish to the 2017 NRL season and impressive World Cup campaign with Lebanon showcased his true value and importantly impressed Lebanon and new Blues coach Brad Fittler.
Titan Nathan Peats was solid if unspectacular taking over from Robbie Farah in the 2017 Origin series but his incumbency will likely count for little under Fittler.
The likes of Cameron McInnes, Api Koroisau and veteran Peter Wallace will also be out to stake their claims but an impressive opening two months from Lichaa could rocket him up the NSW hooker pecking order.
The player you should follow on social media
The Morris twins, Brett (@bmozzle) and Josh (@jmozzle) are both pretty active on Instagram with plenty of behind the scenes dressing room pics and happy family snaps. New buy Kieran Foran (@kieranforan) also hasn't been shy about sharing social snaps of himself out with his partner and teammates since joining the club.
Josh Morris: "We were probably playing really competitive footy towards the end [of 2017]. The last three weeks to finish on that note was good but it's a new season, you've got to forget about that, you've got to work hard during the pre-season and then try and start the year off as well as possible.
"We have had those changes and it's about getting our combinations right during the pre-season and getting out there, we play the Storm, the premiers in the first round. It's about taking on the best and seeing where we're at."
Brett Morris, Josh Morris, Chase Stanley, Josh Cleeland, Kieran Foran, Kerrod Holland, Moses Mbye, Marcelo Montoya, Matt Frawley, Will Hopoate, Tyrone Phillips, Mason Cerruto, Moses Suli, John Olive, Lachlan Lewis, Reimis Smith, Aaron Woods, Adam Elliott, Aiden Tolman, Apiseli Fine, Clay Priest, Danny Fualalo, David Klemmer, Francis Tualau, Greg Eastwood, Josh Jackson, Michael Lichaa, Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Rhyse Martin, Zac Woolford, Ofahiki Ogden.
NRL.com expert Jamie Soward says: "Bulldogs biggest strength is easy, it is their forward pack. They haven't scored a lot of points the last couple of years, their imagination has been lacking when it comes to attack so their strength is going to be through their forwards.
"The Canterbury Bulldogs will finish 11th."
Note: These club squads are subject to change. Each club is required to submit 29 of their official 30-man playing squad to the NRL by March 1. The final spot in these rosters can remain free up until June 30.