Last Sunday afternoon the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs won the Intrust Super Premiership with an 18-12 victory over the Newtown Jets.
It was something of a bitter sweet result for me. I have a considerable soft spot for the Jets, thanks to my late father’s love of the ‘bluebags’. However, putting that aside wasn’t difficult. After the on and off-field drama of the season just passed, there was no way that sentiment was going to override club loyalty and passion; the Dogs needed to win. They had to win.
It wasn’t so much a hope as a necessity. The club was brought to its knees early in the season with an overthrown board, hopes of a rebirth and some necessary adjustments made to the playing squad to ensure short to medium term viability.
Most can now see the benefits of the drastic steps that the new Board took. Aaron Woods was never a Bulldog and played accordingly. Moses Mbye’s comments after his departure were disappointing and despite fans’ universal appreciation of Brett and Josh Morris, money needed to be found to rebuild a competitive squad.
Put bluntly, a series of board-approved recruitment and retention decisions made by previous coach Des Hasler had mired the club in a salary cap nightmare.
It took a while for things to settle but coach Dean Pay stuck firmly to a task that appeared forlorn when the team sank to the bottom rungs of the ladder midway through the season. Sitting alongside Parramatta on the table tells a team a lot about how they are travelling. Whilst the Eels have become somewhat expert in the art of failure in recent times, the kennel rumbles when the Bulldogs are anchored to the cellar.
Whilst chaos reigned in first-grade and the horrific salary cap mess came to light, the Intrust Super Premiership team was affected just as significantly. With so much movement at the top level, the reserves squad was chopped, changed and morphed from week to week.
When the refreshed and youthful first-grade squad found some form late in the season, securing four wins from its last six matches, the second tier boys also played some consistent footy in the lead up to the semi-finals. It was something of a revelation as Reimis Smith, Kerrod Holland, Lachlan Lewis and Rhyse Martin stepped from the fringes of contention and into the big time.
Surely, the ramifications for the reserves’ squad would be disastrous? Not so. The side battled on bravely and managed a top-four position come seasons’ end. Martin’s four-second appearance against the Bears late in the year saw him eligible for the semi-finals yet a loss to the Panthers in week 1 threatened to derail their charge.
From there, the team got rolling and dispatched of the Wyong Roos and the St George-Illawarra Dragons (that felt good) to set up the grand final clash with the Jets.
Leichhardt Oval looked a picture for the decider and despite a slow start, the blue and whites gradually worked their way into the match. Morgan Harper drew much attention for his one-on-one strip with ten minutes remaining on the clock, club stalwart Greg Eastwood played strongly and young stars Josh Cleeland and Fa’amanu Brown were influential. However, if ever a sense of team and club overrode the individuals, this was it.
It was somewhat symbolic that after a year of turmoil and interference, the Bulldogs entered the match without injured halves Lachlan Lewis and Matt Frawley. In a season that leapt from Board elections to salary cap disaster, through poor on-field performances and a clandestine media effort to dig up dirt on the first-grade squad’s end of season celebrations, the Bulldogs were resilient.
The clubs’ first premiership in seven years came off the back of sheer chaos. The players faces said it all on the day and their bond was transparent. It said a lot about the importance of a culture of family and loyalty; a culture that Lynne Anderson had called for when the rebuild began.
Hopefully, Sunday was a glimpse of the future. A future where the family club finally looks like a happy one.