It’s not often the fix to your biggest problem presents itself mid-season.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Dig deeper, and there was foreshadowing we all seemed to miss. Michael Ennis, whilst an experienced and adaptable veteran who would be able to perform within any structure, had a career resurgence once leaving the Bulldogs.
As the Sharks invited him to play at the line rather than the off-the-deck style Des Hasler prefers, his involvement increased exponentially and he finished playing some of the best footy of his career. The player exchanged, the subject of said apology, was the young Lichaa, touted as a future stud at the rake position.
The responsibility for the Bulldogs’ unexciting play doesn’t lie solely with Lichaa. Sure, his contributions have been subpar in 2017 and have failed to have an impact over the results thus far. He is a strong defensive player – a solid 37.7 tackles at 96% success rate is high volume at an efficient clip, noteworthy for a young hooker. Yet with the ball he has fallen victim to the restrictions of Hasler’s system and rarely flashes the running game that made him such an intriguing prospect.
There’s a blatant issue with the current roster construction that threatens to hinder their chances for success this season. If the Bulldogs still have September dreams, something needs to change, and fast. Unfortunately for Lichaa, that may be at his expense.
The fact the Bulldogs have managed to produce a winning record whilst stumbling through most of the early season is astounding. If anything, it suggests there is something worthwhile and operational about their style. Trimming the excess fat, figuring out what that something is and sticking to it has proven to be problematic. Their stout defence gets overlooked often, third in efficiency, a tick in front of the Dragons and behind Melbourne and Cronulla – which is good company to keep. It’s this element that has kept them afloat. Unlike those teams, their offence lags way behind.
Far too often, the attack lacks direction and creativity. Sets in good field position are often wasted, the ones where a repeat set or scoring play is necessary. Frequently, they toggle between one-out forward runs or sideways ball movement that eventuates to nothing, finishing with a kick or turnover that the defence, without being put under any pressure, is far too comfortable in shutting down.
For this reason, the motive for shifting David Klemmer to lock made perfect sense. Playing as the third central forward, Klemmer is able to give the Bulldogs much needed punch through the middle. Starting props James Graham and Aiden Tolman, while both accomplished and capable, are defensively inclined – both top 10, above 39 per game (it’s worked in this department, the Dogs averaging the least missed tackles), and wouldn’t be considered elite in yardage department. It has simplified Klemmer’s role, to where he is able to focus solely on simply running the footy rather than the ball-playing Des likes from his props. Furthermore, adding Klemmer’s 160 metres alongside the existing forward rotation rather than alternating with them intensifies the go-forward in hopes to create some extra opportunities.
And it still hasn’t been enough. The Bulldogs are 14th in tackle busts, 15th in line-breaks, and have the worst run/run metres ratio of anyone aside from the Eels. The blame is to be dispersed to a few parties.
The Mbye-Reynolds halves combination, an issue that took far too long to be brought to the forefront, simply can’t coexist with the current make-up of the roster. Both are natural five-eighths and neither possess the skills to be the dominant playmaker. Not only does it completely subside the strongest elements of their games, they are both actively poor in occupying this role. The fit together is awkward – neither of them take the reins and direct traffic, both have similar strengths and operate in the same areas.
For the first six rounds, the fullback spot was shared between rookie Brad Abbey and Will Hopoate, both strictly ball carriers with little-to-no creative input, further compounding the pre-existing issue. Couple that with Des’ preference for constant short-passing and the lateral movement is imminent with no one to pull the strings. This is where Matt Frawley has made such an impact.
Add nothing more than a competent, NRL-level halfback in Frawley and the change is striking. He isn’t setting the world alight statistically, but even the eye-test displays how the switch brings about an offensive flow that is much smoother. Play unfolds with much more purpose and everyone seems to feel more comfortable in their roles. Predominately Reynolds has reaped the benefits, putting in his best performances alongside Frawley. Most significant, the Dogs are 3-1 with him in the line-up. Whilst four games isn’t a big enough sample size – wins against Souths and Newcastle are expected – the immediate return suggests it’s worth pursuing. It’s not often the fix to your biggest problem presents itself mid-season.
Hasler, for all his exceptional qualities as a mentor, maybe deserves a share of the criticism for not being as adaptable as the situation calls for. Off-season talk about Des changing his ways to fit the culture the Bulldogs board desired has, so far, only materialised off the park. Reportedly they’ve been happy with a noticeable difference in his dealings, yet the playing style has seemed to remain stagnant.
At the end of the day, Hasler has a long history of success and Lichaa’s job is to fill whatever role he’s sent out to do. In that case, he’s the odd man out. Reynolds is in form, and talks of moving him to hooker are shortsighted. He is audacious, which is great in open play but undesirable from hooker, and hasn’t had to endure the copious defensive output that he would have replace. His history of shoulder injuries don’t help either.
Mbye is the most versatile and possesses the most potential – with him on the books next season it makes sense to develop him depending on where they see him fitting in long-term.
On the flipside, Lichaa would be best served moving elsewhere, allowing him to better utilise his talents. There will be no shortage of teams willing to take a flyer on a 23-year-old defensively strong hooker with experience.
If it sounds all too familiar, well, it is. The Bulldogs played the same ‘three-halves two-spots’ game when Trent Hodkinson was a Canterbury resident. They got it wrong then and can’t afford to get it wrong again.
Sorry Michael Lichaa, it’s not you…its them.