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Bulldogs 2021 season preview: Signing spree leads to renewed hope

With a new coach and several new signings, Canterbury are hoping they're about to enter a new era of success.

Trent Barrett helped Penrith's minor premiership-winning attack reach its potential last year as an assistant to Ivan Cleary. Now, he's back in a top job and is tasked with overhauling the Bulldogs.

Not since 2016 has the club featured in the finals, and their offensive output has been underwhelming in that time, to say the least.

Finishing 15th in 2020, Canterbury scored just 282 points (14.1 points per game). Only wooden spooners Brisbane scored fewer (268 points), while every other team produced at least 343.

But with the salary cap pressure that has crippled their roster in recent seasons subsiding, the Bulldogs have been able to open the chequebook and entice some promising talent to Belmore.

Maybe it's unfair to expect a jump from near the foot of the ladder into the finals right away, but for the first time in years Canterbury fans are entitled to be optimistic about the upcoming campaign.

The Bulldogs' 2020 season in review

The 2021 outlook

What's new

The change has started at the top with former Manly mentor Barrett taking the clipboard from caretaker coach Steve Georgallis, who replaced Dean Pay midway through last season.

Barrett's Sea Eagles stint ended acrimoniously, but he guided the club to the finals in 2017 and is often credited with doing wonders for the game of halfback Daly Cherry-Evans.

Kyle Flanagan, who has arrived at Canterbury having been ruthlessly cast aside by the Roosters after one year, will also hope to benefit from the tutelage of Barrett, a former Australian Test five-eighth.

While Flanagan is being championed as the dominant No.7 the Bulldogs were lacking, he'll have plenty of support around him in the backline including strike centre Nick Cotric.

The ex-Raider and NSW representative was Canterbury's first big-name recruit for 2021, putting pen to paper last July.

And fresh off making his Queensland debut, fullback Corey Allan became a Bulldog in January. The 22-year-old impressed in South Sydney's run to the finals last year, but with Latrell Mitchell returning from a hamstring injury, his opportunity in the No.1 was limited.

Jack Hetherington (Panthers) and Corey Waddell (Sea Eagles) will provide aggression and depth in the forward pack.

Canterbury snared young Penrith playmaker Matt Burton on a three-year deal starting in 2022, but negotiations with the Panthers for the Dubbo boy to be released now have so far been fruitless.

Kieran Foran, Aiden Tolman, Sauaso Sue and Marcelo Montoya are among those who have departed the Bulldogs.

The draw

Four of Canterbury's opening five matches will be against finalists from 2020 including minor premiers Penrith (round two) and champions Melbourne (round five). On a positive note, the Bulldogs aren't scheduled for any taxing five-day turnarounds and five of their last six opponents didn't feature in the playoffs last year.

The best of Kyle Flanagan's season at the Tricolours

The burning question

Can Flanagan go to the next level and get the attack firing?

From an outsiders' perspective, it seemed a tad harsh for the Roosters to cut ties with Flanagan following his first year at the club. He had the almost impossible task of filling Cooper Cronk's boots as the Tricolours attempted to clinch a three-peat of titles.

They fell short, bowing out in the second week of the finals, but Flanagan was among the league's top point-scorers.

Barrett's influence helps prepare Flanagan

How he responds to being discarded by the competition heavyweights will be crucial to Canterbury's season.

If the 22-year-old can apply what he learned from the likes of Trent Robinson, Luke Keary and James Tedesco and pick up new tricks from Barrett, he could quickly become the Bulldogs' key man.

The stat that gives you hope

One thing Canterbury couldn't be accused of last year was not trying. The blue-and-whites only won three matches, but they lost another seven by six points or fewer – the most of any side.

Now that they've added significant firepower, the gritty Bulldogs are better placed to prevail in tight contests and could shoot up the ladder as a result.

What you need to know NRL Fantasy-wise 

Jake Averillo ($320k) was among the best options for the tricky centre position but an elbow injury has him racing the clock for round one. Jack Hetherington ($322k) is a popular buy in the middle forwards, Will Hopoate ($395k) is a safe bet at centre and Joe Stimson ($246k) is a great price if he gets decent minutes in the side.

Contract matters

Fifteen players in the team's top-30 squad are without a deal for next season and it appears the club won't be rushed into re-signings.

Outside back Will Hopoate and former Queensland prop Dylan Napa are the highest-profile players off-contract.

A host of forwards including Renouf Atoni, Chris Smith, Dean Britt, Ofahiki Ogden, James Roumanos and hookers Jeremy Marshall-King and Sione Katoa are playing for their futures.

Playmaker Lachlan Lewis, winger Nick Meaney and injured backs Jayden Okunbor and Christian Crichton are unsigned as well.

The story behind Renouf's name change

Breakout player to watch

Jake Averillo

An elbow injury slightly disrupted the 20-year-old's pre-season, but he is primed for a big campaign.

Provided Burton doesn't join the Bulldogs a season early, Averillo is a good chance to partner Flanagan in the halves at some stage. He looked dangerous at five-eighth towards the end of 2020, and his natural running game would complement Flanagan's organisation.

After racking up 13 games last year, Averillo – who can also capably play in the centres or as a livewire bench utility – could make the leap from promising youngster to a star on the rise.

Averillo praises Barrett and his guidance

The quote

"I can't talk a bad word about Baz and his influence on my game so far. We've been working together really closely. I can't wait to build that combination in the future, and I can't wait to repay the faith he's put in me." – Kyle Flanagan on his relationship with Trent Barrett.

The good, the bad and the likely

The good: It might seem like a big ask to go from near-last to the finals, but Parramatta made the playoffs in 2019 after taking out the wooden spoon the season prior. Manly also reached the finals that year despite finishing 15th in 2018. If all goes to plan for the Bulldogs, their new combinations will catapult them into the top eight.

The bad: There's the possibility of a lack of chemistry or cohesion in such a new-look squad. At worst, Canterbury won't improve and will instead remain tethered to the foot of the ladder.

The likely: Realistically, the Bulldogs will be a better team given their strengthened roster. As with the Titans last year in coach Justin Holbrook's first season, finishing just outside the top eight would be a pass mark for Trent Barrett as he sets the foundations.

Bulldogs in 2021

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