While it will go down as a mixed year overall for a very proud historic football club, 2018 had enough positive rays of light shining through the dim clouds to have Bulldogs fans excited for the coming 2019 campaign.
Given the salary cap hell that the club faced in the wake of parting company with former head coach Des Hasler, it was little surprise to see some high-profile big-money players pushed out the door in an effort to balance the books but the emergence of some exciting young talent provided some highlight reel moments towards the back-end of a long season.
An end-of-season scandal involving some dodgy media ethics and a need for newspapers to sell their product with sleazy, beat-up stories put a bit of a dent in the positive vibes emanating out of Belmore by the time the footy finished, but that won’t be much of a concern to the power brokers at the club when they’re back on deck after a long off-season.
Overall, it was never likely the boys from Belmore would taste on-field success in 2019. Aside from the horror salary cap management which made it difficult to field a competitive side week to week and saw casualties like Aaron Woods and Moses Mbye shift clubs mid-season, marquee playmaker Kieran Foran was forced into early retirement through injury.
The Bulldogs never saw the best of Foran and relied on youngsters like Lachlan Lewis and Jeremy Marshall-King to fill a substantial void.
It’s not quite as tangible as you’d like, but the big positive for the Bulldogs in 2019 was the heart and determination a young group showed in the face of overwhelming odds and fairly long stretches without positive results.
As the mid-season departures and injuries hit a fever pitch, it looked possible that the season would completely disintegrate and the Bulldogs would be well in with a shout for the wooden spoon and a true horror start to the coaching career of Dean Pay.
With a bit of grit and fight, a side that probably lacked a bit of polish and talent managed to scratch out some handy wins, even putting on a masterclass as they trounced St George Illawarra 38-0 on the road.
Canterbury were slumped in 15th with 10 weeks left in the season but managed to notch a handful of wins, including four of their last six games to climb up to 12th and restore some much-needed pride at a famous club.
While it was tempting to simply put ‘almost everything for the first half of the season’ as the answer to this one, it is worth looking at in more depth.
Offensively, the Bulldogs struggled to find the right combinations through the spine, especially in the halves and at hooker. Young guys like Lachlan Lewis and Jeremy Marshall-King showed signs that they’re more than capable of playing at this level while Michael Lichaa looked better than he did during his time under Des Hasler, but put together and there’s little inspiration or attacking creativity to work with.
Even working behind a forward pack that was decent enough, the playmakers struggled to create enough chances to trouble the best sides in the competition and, more often than not, found themselves in ugly arm-wrestles with fellow strugglers at the wrong end of the league table.
This lack of creativity and speed with the ball in hand ensured that an enigmatic star like Will Hopoate struggled to make an impact on the back of some sweeping backline moves because the attack was often too easy to read and cumbersome.
Skipper Josh Jackson is never going to make headlines or be the star of the show, but he’s amongst the most consistent performing forwards in the game and he led the charge for Canterbury for much of the 2019 season.
Capable of churning through a heavy workload, Jackson acts as an inspiration to the other 16 players on the park with his tenacity and drive.
There are plenty of superlatives you can throw his way, but if you summed Josh Jackson up as a tireless workhorse devoted to the cause, you wouldn’t be far off the mark.
Beyond Jackson, the emergence of the cool-headed Lachlan Lewis had the Bulldogs faithful buzzing at the back-end of the season and he’ll be the focus of plenty of off-season hype.
2018’s attacking structures were hindered in large part by the make-up of the squad at Canterbury.
Players were recruited and developed to play a very distinctive style of Des Hasler football and given the cattle he had at his disposal, Dean Pay could do little to jettison the consistent block plays that made up the bulk of the Bulldogs attack.
Roster moves and a full off-season to work with his crop of players should see Pay start to install his own offence into the club, but that will take time and Canterbury may not see the rewards from the overhaul immediately next season.
Changing things up so dramatically won’t be an easy task, but if Dean Pay can impress his own unique style on such a young and promising group of players, things could turn around very quickly at Belmore, just see the Anthony Seibold revolution at Redfern for proof of that.
2019: A brief look ahead
Gains: Jack Cogger (Newcastle Knights), Christian Crichton (Penrith Panthers), Corey Harawira-Naera (Penrith Panthers), Nick Meaney (Newcastle Knights), Chris Smith (Sydney Roosters), Sauaso Sue (Wests Tigers).
Losses: Greg Eastwood (released), Asipeli Fine (released), Matt Frawley (released), Moses Mbye (Wests Tigers – mid-season), Brett Morris (Sydney Roosters), Josh Morris (Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks), Clay Priest (released), Aaron Woods (Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks – mid-season).
Canterbury have wasted little time clearing the decks in an effort to free up significant salary cap space and get themselves back into a position where they can compete for the biggest marquee signings in the league.
Accordingly, they have managed to release a number of players and push others out the door and while they’ll still be paying out a few dollars to players at other clubs next season, their financial state is headed in the right direction.
On the flip-side, the Bulldogs have managed to bring in a handful of decent young players who should, at the very least, be fit and firing to prove themselves at first grade level.
Back-rower Corey Harawira-Naera has been a strong edge-runner at Penrith since making the grade and he’ll be a handy addition next season, as will young backs Christian Crichton and Nick Meaney who add depth to the backline positions.
Both Josh and Brett Morris moving on isn’t ideal given they can still contribute at NRL level, but their pay packets made them essential players to be pushed out the door while locking down guys like Raymond Faitala-Mariner (2020), Lachlan Lewis (2020) and Rhyse Martin (2019) is smart business as things stand.
Recruitment won’t have as much of an impact on the 2019 season as how quickly and efficiently Dean Pay can install a new offence and make the necessary changes at the club that will see them compete with the better sides in the league on a more consistent basis.
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