After the drama of 2017/18, Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs fans hoped for something far better this season.
The ongoing objective was to repair a mismanaged salary cap from 2012-17 and some questionable recruitment and retention decisions made along the way.
Early in the 2018 season, it became abundantly clear that there was no quick fix and the process was to be a medium term endeavour, requiring some level of patience and calm.
As a result, the club suffered through a frustrating 2018 season with a bits and pieces squad. It was youthful and raw yet one ravaged by tough and necessary decisions that saw a host of players moved on with an eye to the future and the dawning of a new age.
Peter Moore’s daughter Lynne Anderson; experienced businesswoman, CEO of the Australian Paralympic Committee and wife of former Bulldog and Australian winger Chris Anderson, took the reins as chair in early 2018.
She assembled an astute and well credentialed team to guide the Bulldogs back to competitiveness and respect. Realistically, that would take some time and 2018 was barely an improvement on 2017.
On her administrative team were Bulldogs legends Steve Mortimer, Steve Price, Paul Dunn and husband Chris, along with accomplished businessmen John Ballesty and John Khoury.
The new board expressed a clear intention to restore the culture of the Bulldogs to that of the ‘family club’, as well as an aim to develop junior players and build the next Bulldogs premiership from within. It also took on the immediate task of remedying the irresponsible spending of the previous administration.
After a strong finish to 2018, there was considerable hope that 2019 was to be something of a resurgent and redemptive year for the club.
Christian Crichton, Dylan Napa, Corey Harawira-Naera, Sauaso Sue, Nick Meaney and Jack Cogger had arrived at Belmore, all with new challenges and opportunities on their agenda.
With brave captain Josh Jackson leading, Will Hopoate providing the experience out wide and loyal servant Aiden Tolman offering the grunt through the middle, the building blocks appeared to be there.
Another year of improvement for Lachlan Lewis, Reimis Smith and Jeremy Marshall-King appeared likely and with Raymond Faitala-Mariner and Kieran Foran fit and raring to go, there was enough reason to believe that the Bulldogs would be a much improved side.
Any such hope appeared to be snuffed out in the opening round, with a 40-6 drubbing at the hands of the Warriors sending shock waves through the club.
It was flat out humiliating for the Bulldogs to start so poorly against a team unlikely to threaten for a premiership in 2019. Their lack of preparedness for the opening round match-up was alarming to say the least.
Round 2 offered even less hope for the blue and whites after their arch enemy Parramatta put up similar numbers and the media jumped in the queue; waiting to well and truly put the Bulldogs to the sword.
As early in the season as it was, there was an ominous feeling after the ugly and offensive losses of the opening fortnight and but for a galvanising win against the Tigers in Round 3, all hope could well and truly have been lost.
A brave loss against the Storm in Round 4, where the Bulldogs threatened to cause the upset of the season to that point, was followed by a humiliating thrashing at the hands of the Dragons, a Good Friday loss to the Rabbitohs and a defeat to the Sea Eagles on the insular peninsula.
There were wins against the battling Cowboys and the insipid Titans around that time, yet after 14 rounds of play, the Bulldogs had rustled up just three wins and sat in last place on the NRL premiership ladder.
At that point in the season, coach Dean Pay was under the hammer and in the cross hairs of the Murdoch media. Despite the youth of the squad, injury concerns and the developmental nature of the team, there were many calling for his head and demanding change.
Frankly, it appeared to emanate from people with little knowledge of the game, those with a potential axe to grind considering their relationship with players or an allegiance to the previous board that saw them incapable of admitting to the failures of those who had gone before.
Then, miraculously, something changed. It all began with a closely fought 14-12 victory against the Sharks at ANZ Stadium in Round 15, before the boys in blue and white peeled off wins against the Knights, Panthers, Tigers, Rabbitohs, Eels and Broncos to finish the season.
In the end, the Bulldogs clawed their way from the bottom of the ladder to within three points of the top eight over the final 10 rounds; ruining the top eight hopes of an opponent or two along the way.
Whilst not achieving the ultimate reward and producing an appearance in the semi-finals, Pay steered the squad from embarrassment to respectability come seasons end. As such, and with new recruits and another year of experience under the belts of a host of young players, 2020 cannot come quickly enough for Canterbury.
As in all seasons; there were highs and lows, positives and negatives and some injury and heartbreak thrown into the mix. What follows is a review of the squad and their individual performances in 2019.
Adam Elliott- Another promising year of development for the 24-year-old and one where his continued off-field work was also recognised by the club. Elliott is turning into the ultimate club man; not a player blessed with freakish skill but one determined to succeed. He is already a leader within the group and will only get better with continued opportunity.
Aiden Tolman – Anyone who thought Tolman might be on his last legs was proven incorrect in 2019. The Bulldogs’ most consistent and best forward throughout the season led the way each week and chalked up his 200th game for the club in Round 20 against the Panthers.
Brandon Wakeham – After starring for Fiji during the representative weekend, Wakeham was given a taste of first grade by the coach and played three matches in 2019. He showed enough to suggest that the club should be moving to lock up his services for an extended period of time. Deft ball skills and explosive foot work make the 20-year-old an exciting long-term proposition and if allowed to develop slowly, Wakeham could be wearing the blue and white for some time.
Chris Smith – The 25-year-old from Darwin was one of the finds of the season for the Bulldogs. Displaying a tough, hard-nosed approach to the forward craft, Smith never took a backward step when given the chance in 20 first grade matches this season.
Christian Crichton – The Samoan born international managed just five matches for the Bulldogs in his first season with the club. He was amongst the group that carried the can after the embarrassing losses in Rounds 1 and 2 and he ended the season in the Canterbury Cup squad that came so close to advancing to week three of the finals last weekend. Crichton will be planning a strong pre-season and a push for a top grade starting position in 2020.
Corey Harawira-Naera – Despite being dropped midway through the season, Harawira-Naera returned and provided coach Pay with exactly what he had hoped for a little sooner. The most creative influence on the edge of the ruck for the Bulldogs, the ex-Panther cemented his spot late in the season, played some impressive games and scored a tidy five tries.
Dallin Watene-Zelezniak – The 24-year-old Kiwi was a revelation for the Bulldogs after being released from his contract with the Panthers and arriving in June. Sadly, injury cut his season short, however in his ten matches he was consistently one of the best on field. His arrival added depth to the squad of quick men available to Pay, moved Meaney out onto a wing and made the competition for back line spots more intense.
Danny Fualalo – After playing 15 games this season and notching up 73 for the club since 2015, the 24-year-old leaves Belmore looking for greener pastures and an opportunity to blossom as a footballer. His play was steady in 2019 yet Pay is obviously searching for more firepower up front and with the new additions of Joe Stimson and Dean Britt for next season, Fualalo has been squeezed out of the forward group. We wish him all the best in 2020.
Dylan Napa – Arriving in controversial and somewhat embarrassing circumstances, the former Roosters enforcer played consistent football across his 20 matches and led with authority in the brilliant win against the Broncos in Round 25. Many Bulldogs fans expected a more dramatic impact from the big man yet he was more efficient than dynamic most weeks and produced a solid season in his first for the blue and whites.
Jack Cogger – Seeking opportunity, the former Newcastle Knight arrived at Belmore with a great deal of learning to do and the prospect of considerable time in the Canterbury Cup. However, injuries in the halves gave the little man his chance and he took them with both hands, compiling an impressive 19 game season where the future of the Bulldogs attack began to develop.
Jayden Okunbor – One word. Wow! What an brilliant debut season for the 20-year-old from Sydney; scoring five tries in ten matches and clocking up brilliant metres gained statistics in the process. Sadly, his season was interrupted by injury yet he appeared to be returning to his best when he came back late in the year. Watch out for this man in 2020.
Jeremy Marshall-King – The fact that Marshall-King received the coaches award says a great deal about the level of trust that Dean Pay his in the 23-year-old Kiwi. With the hooking position still a problematic one for the Bulldogs, Marshall-King may have now shown the coaching stuff enough to suggest that he can be the solution.
Josh Jackson – ‘Oh captain my captain’ was up to his usual standard in 2019. Always unsung as a hero, Jackson led from the front through both the good and bad times. There were obvious frustrations yet the run home will have buoyed his spirits for 2020. The captain made 903 tackles in 2019 to once again feature highly in that NRL statistic.
Kerrod Holland – One of the most popular figures at the club, Holland still struggles defensively, yet did make considerable improvements in that area when given his chance to impress. He played 14 games in 2019 and will be looking for a huge off-season to command a first-grade spot when the new season begins in March.
Kieran Foran – The much-maligned Foran reminded all and sundry of his immense talent in 2019. Struck down by injuries yet again, it is no concidence that the stellar run home the team enjoyed took place with a fit Foran at the helm in the halves. Contracted for two more seasons, the Kiwi international will be hoping to repay the club in spades next year.
Lachlan Lewis – It was something of a year of frustration for Lewis and also one of joy as he celebrated the birth of his child early in the season. Sadly, he struggled to force his way back into the side until late in the year, where he and Foran struck up an excellent combination. Defensively, Lewis continues to shine and with more work on his kicking game, will come back an even better player in 2020.
Marcelo Montoya – Whilst not lasting long in the starting line-up after the early season drubbings, Montoya found his way back into the team and did well in the nine matches he played through the middle of the season. Sadly, a knee injury against the Broncos in Round 18 cut his season short.
Michael Lichaa – It was another disappointing year for the Lebanese International where his opportunities were limited due to the coaches preference to fast track the development of Marshall-King. Much debate raged around that decision yet we wish Michael well in his career as he now departs the club.
Nick Meaney – Similar to Cogger, Meaney sought opportunity away from the Newcastle Knights and he certainly found it with the blue and whites in 2019. Beginning as a fullback, Meaney was shifted to the wing upon the arrival of Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and never looked back. The 22-year-old played 22 matches, scored six tries and kicked 32 goals; showing true value as something of a potential utility player in the back line. He was one of the Bulldogs’ most consistent players all season.
Ofahiki Ogden – The future appears bright for Ogden, after an impressive showing despite limited minutes this season. The club has invested in the big front-rower for a further two years and will look for a gradual increase in playing time and effectiveness in 2020. There were moments of promise through the centre of the ruck in his 13 first-grade matches this season and the 23-year-old from Auckland could well be an integral part of the forward pack for some years to come.
Raymond Faitala-Mariner – After serious injury in 2018, Faitala-Mariner looked a little out of sorts early in the 2019 season. Managing just ten games, the 26-year-old began to find some of his old form late in the season and looks set for a huge 2020. A fit and firing version of the powerful forward is vital for the Bulldogs’ chances.
Reimis Smith – With his pedigree rewarded in the the lower grades, Smith continues to loom as one of the future stars of the club. It was another season of growth, where he missed just one match and scored 12 tries. His move into the centres late in the season may be an insight into the thinking of Pay and a hint at his eventual positional destination.
Renouf To’omaga – It took some time for To’omaga to receive the opportunity he craved in 2019, but when it presented itself, he took it with both hands. One of the best Bulldog forwards over the final month of the season; the 24-year-old chalked up nine late season matches where he showed plenty to the coaching staff.
Sauaso Sue – It probably wasn’t the season for which the former Tigers forward had hoped, despite some solid performances in the 11 matches he played. Dropped early in the year by Pay, Sue returned and impressed before having his season destroyed by a torn ACL.
Will Hopoate – There is no better place to end the review of the 2019 Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs season than with the player of the year, Will Hopoate. It was a stellar season from the 27-year-old and one where he was free to play his most effective role in the centres after Meaney and Watene-Zelezniak occupied the custodian role. That move steadied the Bulldogs’ back line defence and also added potency, experience and poise in attack.
2020 looms as an exciting proposition for a squad undoubtedly on the rise. Competition for spots will be hot and the new blood should add a fresh and exciting feel to the group.
A top eight position is more than a fair expectation for every NRL team heading into a season and is a realistic possibility for the blue and whites, despite missing the finals for three years running.
The fans will be champing at the bit by Christmas and before we know it, the 2020 NRL season will be upon us. The Bulldogs will be hoping it proves even more rewarding than 2019.