In a nutshell…
After a fifth-place finish and a respectable week-two exit from the finals – following on from a grand final appearance in 2014 – Canterbury should be building towards a premiership tilt, but the club is flying under the radar somewhat at present. Question marks over the ability of their exciting, but limited, halves to steer the team around and a baffling roster decision out wide has blunted hype around the Bulldogs. That won’t worry Des Hasler, however, and the wily coach still has one of the NRL’s toughest and most skilful packs, and plenty of tryscoring strike at his disposal.
2016 Gains: Brad Abbey (New Zealand Warriors, 2018), Graham Clark (2016), Craig Garvey (St George Illawarra Dragons, 2017), Kerrod Holland (Newcastle Knights, 2017), Will Hopoate (Parramatta Eels, 2017)
2016 Losses: Damien Cook (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Herman Ese’ese (Brisbane Broncos), Trent Hodkinson (Newcastle Knights), Antonio Kaufusi (retired), Tim Lafai (St George Illawarra Dragons), Frank Pritchard (Hull FC), Corey Thompson (Widnes Vikings)
Will Hopoate is the big-name signing – coming in at the expense of the explosive Tim Lafai in a contentious call by the club – while versatile young trio Brad Abbey, Craig Garvey and Kerrod Holland all arrive with some big wraps. Halfback Trent Hodkinson and second-row veteran Frank Pritchard are big losses.
— NRL Bulldogs (@NRL_Bulldogs) February 9, 2016
The recruitment drive ahead of 2015 alleviated one of the side’s biggest bugbears – an inability to score tries. Brett Morris and Curtis Rona came into the backline for grand final wingers Mitch Brown and Corey Thompson, and the results were immediate; Morris revelled in the fullback spot, while Rona scored a club record-equalling 23 tries on the left flank. Sam Perrett is a steady influence on the other wing, while Josh Morris will pair up with NSW teammate Hopoate in the centres. Abbey, Nines star Tyrone Phillips and the experienced Chase Stanley provide handy depth.
Josh Reynolds and Moses Mbye will be charged with taking the Bulldogs into the future following Hodkinson’s departure. Both outstanding attacking, adlib-style players, the challenge for the green pairing will be the organisational responsibilities – an area Hodkinson handled so astutely. On the plus side, Reynolds and Mbye ensure the blue-and-whites have game-breaking ability on tap in the key positions. Abbey shapes as a potential back-up, having played some five-eighth in the Warriors’ NYC side as well as starring at fullback.
Arguably Canterbury’s biggest strength. Maligned backrower Tony Williams will likely return from injury to take the spot vacated by Pritchard, while Shaun Lane developed into a wonderful prospect in Williams’ stead last year. World-class forwards James Graham, Sam Kasiano, Aiden Tolman, Josh Jackson, Greg Eastwood and David Klemmer round out an engine-room contingent that is the envy of most clubs, while the likes of Tim Browne and Lloyd Perrett are quality performers. Michael Lichaa will return from injury with a free run at the No.9 jersey after late-season star Damien Cook joined Souths.
Brett Morris: Not the most natural ball-playing fullback, but Morris was a revelation in the No.1 last year in an injury-hampered campaign. Still managed nine tries and led the team in tackle breaks despite missing 10 games. The world’s best winger when he made the switch from the Dragons, ‘B-Moz’ has a marked impact on every match he plays.
James Graham: Tenacious, tough and silky-skilled, Graham embodies the strengths of the Canterbury pack and leads the way in each department. An inspirational skipper.
Josh Jackson: After debuting for Australia at the end of 2014, Jackson continued his ascent to the ranks of the NRL’s elite forwards and cracked the NSW Origin side. In a similar vein to players like Beau Scott and Sam Thaiday, the bare statistics don’t always tell the story of Jackson’s impact, but there’s little question over his immense value to this Canterbury outfit.
Under the pump
Tony Williams: The perpetual enigma, Williams’ frustrating lack of consistency must have the club at its wit’s end after three underwhelming seasons. The former Test star missed half of 2015 through injury, and it is getting to the stage where the Bulldogs need to cut their losses. Averaged just 15.8 tackles and 103.2 metres in his 11 appearances last year.
Michael Lichaa: The highly-rated Cronulla hooker was brought to Belmore amid much hype, but was solid rather than spectacular in his first full season in the NRL. His predecessor, Michael Ennis, carving up for the Sharks only accentuated Lichaa’s par-at-best campaign, while he missed the latter stages of the season through injury – after which Damien Cook added a new dimension to the Canterbury line-up. Lichaa produced just two try-assists and two line-breaks in 21 games last season.
Will Hopoate: There were raised eyebrows throughout the game after the Bulldogs moved Lafai on to bring Hopoate, who was disappointing on massive money at Parramatta, into the fold. Hasler, his first NRL coach at Manly, may be able to unlock Hopoate’s best form – but he certainly arrives under a fair bit of scrutiny.
Tony Williams makes Akuila Uate look dedicated and intelligent.
— Nick Tedeschi (@NickTedeschi) February 6, 2016
Moses Mybe: A brilliant match-winner during 2015, Mbye is among the most dangerous ball-running halves in the competition – but how much will the No.7 jumper weigh on his shoulders?
Josh Reynolds: Dynamic, inspirational, erratic and hot-headed – sometimes within the same half of football – Reynolds is the archetypal make-or-break player.
Sam Kasiano: After struggling to hold down a permanent spot in 2014 and reportedly being shopped around, the giant Kiwi Test bookend was back to his mind-blowing best last year. Kasiano was a rampaging runner, offloading king and ball-playing marvel, providing another dimension to the multi-faceted Bulldogs pack.
The lack of a dominant dummy-half and proven halves organiser.
2015 Stats Leaders
Tries: Curtis Rona – 23
Try Assists: Trent Hodkinson – 12
Line Breaks: Curtis Rona – 24
Tackle Breaks: Brett Morris – 68
Offloads: Sam Kasiano – 52
Average Metres: Aiden Tolman – 153
Average Tackles: Damien Cook – 49.6
An overlooked offshoot of Hodkinson’s departure is the loss of one of the NRL’s finest sharpshooters. The role seems destined to fall to Mbye, who slotted a modest 15 from 24 (62.5%) when handed the duties intermittently last year. Browne has some form, but spends only half a game on the field and isn’t guaranteed a spot in the 17. Could be a concern.
Two-time premiership winner Hasler has steered the Bulldogs to two grand finals – both losses – in his eventful five seasons at the helm. One of the best coaches of the modern era tactically and motivationally, Des’ ability to manipulate the media and deflect attention from his team is also invaluable.
James Graham lost his cool during last year’s infamous Good Friday clash with Souths, but the passion he brings to the role is a big asset to Canterbury. In Tolman, Eastwood, Jackson and the Morris twins, the Bulldogs possess several quality candidates if the Englishman is unavailable.
— NRL Bulldogs (@NRL_Bulldogs) February 8, 2016
The Morris twins, Jackson and Klemmer are NSW certainties, while Reynolds, Tolman and Hopoate are outside chances of Blues selection. As talented as he is, Mbye is unlikely to be called upon by Queensland just yet. The Bulldogs could have as many as seven players involved in the Anzac Test.
The Bulldogs have been handed the third-hardest draw in the NRL based on last year’s finishing positions, with two matches against five of the 2015 finalists and only one of the bottom four. They’ll want to be entrenched in the top eight heading into the home stretch, with games against the Sea Eagles, Broncos, Cowboys and Rabbitohs rounding out their regular-season draw.
— NRL Bulldogs (@NRL_Bulldogs) November 28, 2015
Round 4 and the traditional Easter clash with the Rabbitohs. Returning to the scene of the crime, ANZ Stadium, on Good Friday will put Canterbury under the spotlight in the wake of last year’s lamentable events on the field and in the grandstands.
Brett Morris, Curtis Rona, Josh Morris, Will Hopoate, Sam Perrett, Josh Reynolds, Moses Mbye, James Graham, Michael Lichaa, Aiden Tolman, Josh Jackson, Shaun Lane, Greg Eastwood. Int: Tim Browne, David Klemmer, Sam Kasiano, Tony Williams.
What the bookies think
Premiership: $15 (8th-favourites)
Top 4: $3.25
Top 8: $1.62
Wooden Spoon: $51
CBS experts’ prediction
Will – 11th
Telly – 8th
Drew – 12th