Not since 2016 has the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs successfully advanced to the NRL finals. More disturbingly, an average ladder position of somewhere between 12th and 13th place during that period has seen supporters of the club become furious, frustrated and forlorn all at the same time.
The stark realities of a mis-managed salary cap, poor recruitment and retention and a failed administrative arm that promised the world and delivered little, have now all come into much clearer focus.
That focus has been born of the professional and positive decisions being made with new Chairman John Khoury at the helm; stabilising an organisation that was as rocky as the Titanic in the most angry of seas.
By his side is Chief Executive Officer Aaron Warburton, a man with runs on the board at the club in a prior role and a level of business acumen that has been absent in recent years.
Together they have set about rebuilding, reshaping and rehabilitating the club they both love and the fruits of their labour are beginning to show.
At long last, the playing squad and the financial investments made in it appear to have been balanced appropriately. The short term pain of rebuild has been necessary, especially after previous coach Des Hasler’s efforts to achieve a short term premiership triumph, with little or no thought for the generation that was to follow.
Yet with young emerging stars like Jake Averillo, Aaron Schoupp, Brandon Wakeham and Matt Doorey developing into consistent first-graders and Englishman Luke Thompson now finding his feet in Australia, the hope of a positive future appears ever real to the Bulldogs faithful.
2021 has certainly been a year of struggle. However, the recent 28-6 drubbing of a traditional red and white foe in Round 14, as well as a superb first half effort against Parramatta a week later, both displayed exactly what new coach Trent Barrett had hoped to see, albeit a little earlier in the season.
Barrett has been patient yet ruthless whilst at the helm; setting standards of expectation amongst the playing group and sticking with a core base of players who have proven their commitment; those he believes will be part of the on-field success of the club in the coming years.
That success will be aided by the pending arrivals of Josh Addo-Carr, Brent Naden and Matt Burton, players blessed with the speed and skill that has been lacking in the Bulldogs’ backline for some time.
Along with new arrival Nick Cotric, the 2022 version of the blue and white backs looks, potentially, like one of the most destructive and potent in the NRL.
With young Jackson Topine looming as a long term star for the club and a solid group of forwards led by Jack Hetherington, Corey Waddell, captain Josh Jackson and Thompson, the board and Barrett’s planning and diligence is clear.
There are enough signs to suggest that the era of rebuild is over and a more than competitive Canterbury-Bankstown will take to the field in Round 1 of 2022.
One man key to that success will be Jeremy Marshall-King, whose recent form after returning from injury reminded all members of the blue and white faithful just how important his role is and how desperately in need of a quality and mature hooker the club has been.
Complimented by the astute management of the playing roster, Barrett’s off-field changes have also added to what appears to be a promising blue and white future.
He initiated an approach to former All-Black mentor Steve Hansen. Recently in Sydney, Hansen took an a role as advisor and sounding board, where he will work with coaches, players and staff in an effort to establish a clear, successful and consistent culture.
The hope is that together, Barrett and Hansen optimize levels of performance in a way that returns the team to on-field success briskly. A broader aim is to convince the often cynical rugby league public that the new professional face of the club is standard setting.
There will still be considerable learnings over the second half of the 2021 season. Barrett’s squad is far from the finished article. However, the shoots of growth and success are there, it is obvious on and off the field.
The fans in the blue and white kennel have waited for some time and there is no magic elixir that will send the club to the top of the table instantly.
Yet Canterbury-Bankstown do appear to be close to finally getting back on track, competing, returning to the finals and giving their loyal fan base the success they haven’t seen in some time.