How new Canterbury chiefs are putting bite back into Bulldogs
"What we want to tell the world loud and clear now is that the Family Club is back and in operation."
That is new Canterbury chairwoman Lynne Anderson speaking just 10 weeks after she stormed to power with a new board at the club that her father, Peter "Bullfrog" Moore, transformed into a benchmark for other Australian sporting teams during his reign from 1969-1995.
In the time since the bitter football club elections on February 10, Anderson, her team of directors and CEO Andrew Hill have begun working to rebuild pathways for local juniors – male and female – and convince young talent to again choose Canterbury over NRL rivals.
The new Bulldogs triumvirate of Anderson, Hill and coach Dean Pay face some significant challenges after inheriting a salary cap mess, the fallout from Des Hasler’s sacking and the need to rein in off-field spending to get under the NRL’s new $5.7 million football department salary cap.
However, repairing the disconnect felt by many supporters – among the most passionate and loyal in the Telstra Premiership – is the issue they have focused on as their first task in turning the club around.
"There was a great line through the elections that one of the members gave me - ‘I’d love a premiership, but I would love a proud club back even more’," Anderson said.
Research conducted at the end of last season with sponsors, members and fans found most wanted Canterbury to be a club which was respected on and off the field and viewed as one that did the right thing by its players and supporters, while also winning.
"I was here in 1993 and I think I probably did the first pure market research that the club ever did and the fans are still saying the same things. The nice thing is that the legacy has carried through," said Anderson, who was the Bulldogs' marketing manager from 1993-1997, and has more than 20 years of experience in sports marketing.
"Yes, it is 2018, and there are new environments, but ultimately the core of what we do will be values based around our Family Club. In sport, everyone goes through cycles but the clubs with good cultures get back on top and I have no doubt that we are one of those clubs."
In an in-depth interview with NRL.com, Anderson and Hill outlined how Canterbury planned to again become a club others in Australian sport look to emulate, and addressed key issues raised by fans, including:
- The lack of juniors in the club’s ranks;
- Recruitment and retention;
- The team’s playing style;
- Re-establishing the Bulldogs culture; and,
- An NRL Women’s Holden Premiership team.
"There are some well-documented challenges but the foundation of the club is very strong so when people say to me that you have got to rebuild it and it is a mess … I say, ‘no we have got some tough decisions to make," Hill said.
Winger Marcelo Montoya is the only player in Canterbury’s NRL squad to have come through the club’s junior system, following the departure of Josh Reynolds at the end of last season and previously, Dale Finucane and Martin Taupau.
A junior rugby league sub-committee was the first appointed by the new board and is headed by director John Khoury, who has had a long involvement with the area’s juniors.
"To be a benchmark club you have got to have a production line, and the club hasn’t had a clear production line or pathway program for our kids," Hill said.
"There is now a commitment from the district club to re-embed ourselves in our junior league and the club wants every boy and girl who plays junior rugby league in our district to have a blue and white eye.
"This is not just one footy team, it is a whole community. It is all age groups, it is boys and girls, men and women, and we want Bulldogs to be strong at all levels. Our Harold Matthews kids are as important to us as our first graders because they are our future."
Recruitment and retention
The loss of Reynolds and James Graham, two players considered the heart and soul of Bulldogs teams in recent seasons, has upset fans.
Graham moved to St George Illawarra with a year left on his contract because of the club’s salary cap squeeze and Reynolds accepted a bigger offer to join Wests Tigers.
"I’d like to think that we don’t go through this again where we are losing good juniors," Anderson said.
While those decisions were made under the previous regime, Hill pointed out all clubs were affected by the unprecedented off-season player movement within the NRL.
"You have had a lot of long-term players leave clubs, like Mitchell Pearce and Matt Moylan," he said. "The emotional attachment to players is a strong one but you can’t just follow it blindly because then you get into other issues around your salary cap.
"Every club is going to have a combination of recruited top players, players who come through your junior rep programs and ideally you will get that kid who started playing at one of our local clubs as a six-year-old and has come all the way through. That’s the perfect model for a Sydney NRL franchise."
Players and fans often complained Hasler’s style was too structured and the Bulldogs are developing a more entertaining brand of football, which was evident in their 27-10 win over North Queensland two weeks ago.
"Fundamentally this footy club has to play a style of footy that our fans have pride in and what I have seen and heard in my engagements with our key partners and fans and supporters is that they are starting to see a change in the style of footy that people want to come and watch," Hill said.
"The club had a coach here for six years and we have now got a new coach here who has had seven games so It is going to take some time for Dean and the playing group to gel together to change the style but we saw against the Cowboys what this team can produce. We just need to see it on a regular basis."
Under Pay, there is also an emphasis on the tough defence which the club was renowned for when he played in the 1990s.
"Getting Dean as coach was fantastic because he has got the Bulldogs DNA," Anderson said.
The Bulldogs were once renowned as a club which attracted the best young players in Australia and New Zealand, and Anderson said she and husband Chris – a former Canterbury premiership-winning player and coach – had begun working to restore that reputation.
"If you are asking families to let a young kid come to the big smoke it can be scary so with a few of the young players from outside of Sydney, their parents have come down, we have met with them, had dinner with them – that is what Dad used to do," she said.
"We want to be a club of choice for young families and local juniors, and the environment and the culture are just really critical to allow us a bit of a unique selling point against every other football club."
Canterbury were also the benchmark for other clubs, on and off the field.
"The Storm have undoubtedly been a long-term success but when you look back at their origins, they were a hybrid of the best of the Broncos and the best of the Bulldogs," Anderson said.
"That is why when they have had challenges they have gotten straight back on track. They are an absolute example of what we know we can do here."
The Bulldogs considered applying for a licence in the new NRL Women’s Premiership but decided to focus first on establishing pathways for female players and have an under 14 girls' development squad, and have teams in the under 18s Tarsha Gale Cup and Harvey Norman NSW Women’s Premiership.
"The long-term aspiration for this club is to have teams for boys, girls, men and women competing in every competition as the Bulldogs," Hill said.
"We are not interested in just putting a team in to play three games and not having anything meaningful underneath that. We want to build from the ground up.
"When Lynne and I presented the jerseys to the first ever open-age women’s team to represent the Bulldogs, that was 85 years in the making so there are lots of things for the club to be proud of."
In addition, the Bulldogs under 18s are in the semi-finals of the SG Ball competition on Saturday, the under 16s were eliminated last weekend and the club’s Jersey Flegg under 20s and NSW Intrust Super Premiership teams are each fifth.
"There are some challenges but we are already doing some good things and we are heading in the right direction," Hill said.
"We have got the most fanatical, passionate supporters in the NRL and our membership, whilst it is not as strong as we would like it, it is consistent, we have got a licenced club which continues to invest in the community and invest in rugby league and our brand is very strong."