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For & Against: Will Barrett lead Bulldogs back to finals in 2021?

Can a new coach, a handful of impressive signings and a much-needed dose of good fortune turn the Bulldogs into a finals side in 2021?

The Bulldogs won just three matches in 2020, only avoiding the wooden spoon by having a superior points differential to a Brisbane side that lost 17 of their last 18 games.

In this week's For & Against, NRL.com journalists Paul Zalunardo and Chris Kennedy discuss the merits of Canterbury staging a dramatic turnaround and ending the year with finals football.

For

NRL.com journalist Paul Zalunardo

They need everything to go right, but the Bulldogs are in with a shout of staging a remarkable turnaround and reaching the 2021 finals.

Yes, Canterbury did only win three matches from 20 starts last season, but nine of their 17 losses were by eight points or less.

Self-belief, especially when it comes to young teams, carries plenty of water.

Bulldogs head to Kiama

If Canterbury had won two, or maybe even all, of the three matches they lost by eight or less during the opening six rounds of 2020 (either side of the COVID-19 break) they would have been feeling grand with a 3-3 or 4-2 record. Confidence levels would have been high.

Instead, they were 1-5 and for all intents and purposes the finals were out of the picture. What followed was a season marred by a coaching change and six more losses in winnable matches.

The belief hasn’t been high in close matches in recent years, but an incoming coach who has already proven himself could be the magic elixir.

Everybody’s heading to Magic Round

One thing you can’t deny about Trent Barrett’s coaching is that he can improve an attack. Funnily enough, that’s just what the Dogs need.

He did that at Manly, and albeit with more talent, replicated it when working as the attack coach for Ivan Cleary at the Panthers.

Canterbury’s attack was regularly found wanting in 2020 but as well as having Barrett, the backline will have a new look this year.

A lot will rest on the shoulders of new halfback Kyle Flanagan. After being unable to find a halves combination that can spark an attack in recent years, Canterbury are hoping they have one piece of the solution to that puzzle in place.

That issue should be totally rectified when Matt Burton strides into town in November, although the player and his agent are keen for that to happen earlier.

There is also a pair of Origin-standard outside backs preparing to make their club debuts.

Nick Cotric comes from Canberra and Corey Allan caps a six-month period that included making his name as a top-shelf fullback at Souths and playing in a winning State of Origin team.

Analysing the Bulldogs' 2021 draw

While integrating that trio into a new-look attack was high on Barrett’s list of summer priorities, getting Dallin Watene-Zelezniak back to his best should also be prominent on his to-do list.

DWZ needs to again become a try-scoring threat and a strong ball-runner when his side is carting the ball off their own line.

As far as making the top eight, there are some vulnerable teams from last year’s finals.

Cronulla, Newcastle and Parramatta are the three most likely to find the going tough. Even though the Eels finished in the top four, their record of 10 wins by eight points or less suggests things were not as dominant as the results indicated.

On paper, the Gold Coast, Warriors and Manly are ahead of Canterbury when it comes to finding sides capable of moving from the bottom eight into the finals, but a strong start for the men from Belmore may just make them the story of 2021.

Bulldogs halfback Kyle Flanagan.
Bulldogs halfback Kyle Flanagan. ©bulldogs.com.au

NRL.com reporter Chris Kennedy

The Bulldogs look like they will show plenty of improvement in 2021 off the back of some smart recruiting and a change of coach – but finals football is still a bridge too far.

The recruitment of halfback Kyle Flanagan and fullback Corey Allan should add some polish in attack. Adding Nick Cotric to the backline won't hurt and Jack Hetherington should bring some fire and brimstone to the pack.

Incoming coach Trent Barrett had a great year guiding the young Penrith attack last year and no doubt learned plenty from his time as Manly head coach.

The Bulldogs will be a lot better than last year but it will be very tough for them to rise as high as the playoff equation. This is why.

Defensively they finished 2020 with the second-most missed tackles after Cronulla, second-most ineffective tackles behind Gold Coast, second-most tries conceded behind Brisbane and fourth-most line breaks conceded.

In attack, they had the fewest line breaks and fewest tackle breaks of any club, well behind the second-worst team in each category.

They also had the second-fewest tries scored (beating Brisbane by one). Barrett is a renowned attacking coach but the former Blues and Kangaroos five-eighth is starting from a pretty low base.

Improving from 15th to eighth or better is a massive jump when you have to reverse those sorts of numbers. It's not unprecedented – remarkably the last-placed Eels and Barrett's own 15th-placed Sea Eagles under new coach Des Hasler each jumped from the bottom two in 2018 to the finals a year after.

Corey Allan.
Corey Allan. ©NRL Photos

But such wild swings are the exception rather than the rule.

While this team has some talented playmakers, every one of them is still finding his feet at NRL level.

Flanagan was in and out of the Roosters side last year, Allan only got his chance late in the season through the injury to Latrell Mitchell, Jeremy Marshall-King is still developing into an NRL hooker and Flanagan's halves partner is yet to be determined.

The pack is workmanlike rather than dynamic, and it's a similar story in the backs.

The blue and whites will give a good account of themselves this year and be a tough team to beat more often than not.

They're building to something and the experience this year for the young playmakers will be vital next year when further roster strengthening should give them a genuine shot of returning to finals footy.

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The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.