For the past two years, the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs have made late season charges, potentially masking their poor play when things really mattered earlier on.
For fans of the blue and white, getting off to a good start and establishing a presence in the NRL top eight has become something of a foreign concept. The pain of rebuild has been well and truly evident. In 2018, the club’s board realised the necessity to move towards the future by moving certain players on and acquiring some young and promising talent for coach Dean Pay to work with in the medium term.
The departures of Damien Cook and Dale Finucane have proven to be immense errors made by the previous administration and some serious Bulldog DNA was lost when Josh Reynolds, Rhys Martin, Moses Mbye, James Graham and the Morris brothers moved on, most as part of an attempt to right the salary cap problems that Chair Lynne Anderson and her board inherited.
It was never going to be easy, in fact, it was likely to prove traumatic. However, in context, Pay’s team did well enough to stay off the bottom and at least give fans something to shout about with 18 wins across the last two seasons.
Within that time, representative front-rower Dylan Napa joined the pack, along with Jack Cogger and Nick Meaney from Newcastle. Corey Harawira-Naera, Sauaso Sue and Christon Crichton also played in the blue and white for the first time and mid-season recruit Dallin Watene-Zelezniak proved an astute and valuable signing.
2020 dawns with the arrivals of Joe Stimson, Dean Britt and Sione Katoa. When all that fresh blood is considered along with the developing Jeremy Marshall-King, Jayden Okunbur, Brandon Wakeham, Reimis Smith and Lachlan Lewis, the full extent of the necessary transformation of the Bulldogs becomes clear.
The team that takes to the field in Round 1 will bear little or no resemblance to the one that did so late in the 2017 season. The exceptions are captain Josh Jackson, Will Hopoate and veteran front-rower Aiden Tolman, who continue to churn out quality first grade performances most weeks, for the club at which they will likely finish their careers.
That blend makes the Bulldogs an incredibly difficult team to read as the pre-season looms. Early losses will see pressure mount on Pay, with many still unconvinced he has the variety and finesse in his approach to move beyond excellent completion rates and develop his team’s point scoring ability.
Others will cite the immense turnover of players at the club, the fact that Pay dragged his men to within three points of the top eight in 2019 and the potential improvement in the squad, to suggest 2020 could well be the Bulldogs best season for some time.
So what is a fair expectation for a club whose proud history has not been replicated in recent seasons and whose fans and members have begun voting with their feet?
Realistically, Pay will have a top eight position pencilled in as a fair result. If that does not eventuate, he will consider the season a failure. In the cut-throat world of professional sport, that is probably a fair measuring stick to apply.
Putting aside grandiose thoughts of a top four position and a potential premiership run in the spring, the squad has enough talent within it to find 12-13 wins, despite the fact that Kieran Foran will again miss a significant period of football recovering from yet another injury. He may never play in the club’s colours again.
Bluntly, there can be no excuses. With a mix of experience and youthful talent at his disposal, Pay stands at the crossroads; fans frustrated and the club expecting to see the start of a new era based on a slow and patient rebuild.
At the heart of any such improvement will lie one undeniable fact. Fans can expect nothing but the results of 2019, should the Bulldogs fail to score more points. With just 326 at an average of 13.6, they never really stood a chance in many matches where the opposition managed to score three tries or more. Such a statistic is unsustainable at NRL level, should a team wish to compete for a top eight position.
The Bulldogs were in excess of 300 points in arrears of both the Roosters and the Storm when it came to point scoring, a stunning reality for Pay to deal with. Defensively, things were generally good and the team’s completion rate was consistently around the 80 per cent mark. However, it is the attacking prowess of the men in blue and white that will need to improve in order for opposition fans to once again fear the famous colours of Canterbury.
What will transpire in 2020 is uncertain, yet all teams must stand before the mirror at some point; refusing to accept standards of the past and determined to improve the future. For the Bulldogs, that time is now.