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A new coach, a new captain and a new era is on the horizon at Belmore in 2018. Sam Bourke looks at what to expect from the Bulldogs this year.
12 months ago if you advised the most ardent blue and white eyed supporter that their poor 2017 season would not only see an end to the clubs consecutive finals run of 5 straight seasons but also lead to the departures of coach Des Hasler, followed by the heart and soul of the club in skipper James Graham and local legend Josh Reynolds, then they may have refused to watch what unfolded last year.
At times the Bulldogs season was not worth watching, with many fans finding their lackluster attack in their own red zone up there with sitting in the dentist's chair having root canal surgery. Essentially 2017 was a painful year for the Dogs.
The Bulldogs came into the 2017 under enormous pressure to perform, with simply just making up the numbers in the Top 8 no longer good enough. The pressure was right on Des Hasler and his charges to change their predicable attacking style and it simply did not happen, with the Blue and White's sticking to their outdated playbook which was at times unwatchable.
While the Dogs giant pack had no issues getting them over the advantage line time and time again, it was when they reached their own 20m attacking zone where they were a rabble. In fact, Canterbury were by far the worst in the NRL for attack, registering just 360 points for the season, with a late three game streak flattering their season where they finished in 11th place but never looked like contenders.
2018 sees club legend Dean Pay take the reins and already he has promised to bring the ‘Dogs of War' mentality back to Belmore. As mentioned, Canterbury have lost their most passionate players in James Graham and Josh Reynolds, who have been replaced by Australian and NSW prop Aaron Woods and Kiwi international and premiership winning five eighth Kieran Foran. With the Bulldogs clunky spine their Achilles heel last season, the signing of the recently unsettled Foran looms as the key to their success this year. On his day Foran is one of the best players in the NRL, but following two nightmare seasons at both the Eels and then the Warriors which were marred through personal issues and injuries respectively, many pundits will see Foran as a risk the Bulldogs need to take.
Canterbury are a club that demands success and they never stay down for long. Coach Pay hasn't taken long to put his stamp on the squad and has made a very proactive move by naming NSW backrower and tacking machine Josh Jackson as the side's captain, which indicates that he believes that the side needs to regain their hard edge. While the loss of James Graham is a big one, the Dogs now will likely start with the current Australian front row of David Klemmer and Aaron Woods, with the underrated Aiden Tolman also providing some strong go forward in the front row rotation.
The re-shuffled backline, which will see the mercurial Moses Mbye make a shock move to fullback, which gives the Dogs some unpredictability and allows Mbye to play to his strength which is running with the football. With no expectation on the Bulldogs, that is traditionally when they tend to thrive and should new recruit Kieran Foran remain injury free and rediscover his best form in the blue and white, then the Dogs could shock the competition.
The old adage that you need a great halfback to win a competition rings alarm bells with the current roster. Canterbury aren't even sure of who will start in the number 7, with Matt Frawley, Josh Cleeland and Sharks recruit Fa'manu Brown all locked in a race to grasp the start in the halves alongside Foran..even so can these players with such limited NRL experience really take this side to a premiership?
Further to this, the Bulldogs have lost their two most passionate players in Graham and Reynolds, this can't be underestimated, as it was more often than not that the leadership, passion and desire of one of these two players got the Dogs home in tight matches over the past few seasons. Who steps up now?
Foran as mentioned has the biggest weight on his shoulders if this side is to challenge the major contenders in 2018. It has been well documented that the former premiership winner has had his share of off field issues, but hopefully the return to Sydney allowing him to be closer to his young children will put Foran in a positive frame of mind and he can remain injury free, which plagued his previous season at the Warriors.
Lichaa received a lot of criticism last year, with the young hooker failing to live up to the hype after being a big money signing from the Sharks in 2015. Signed for his devastating running game, Lichaa was forced to change his style under Des Hasler, adopting the defence minded mantra for the hooker position that Hasler successfully adopted from his time at Manly with Matt Ballin and then at Canterbury with Michael Ennis. The writing was on the wall, and with Lichaa off contract he simply had to put himself in the shop window and he did, sparking the Dogs final three wins, playing his natural game and turning in back to back Man of the Match performances.
Despite being handed his retirement jersey and told to look elsewhere by the club, incoming coach Dean Pay's first move was to re-sign Lichaa whom he coached in the NSW under 20's. Hooker has evolved as one of the key positions on the rugby league field and if the Dogs are to fire back into contention, then Michael Lichaa needs to repay the faith.
With the Bulldogs having a big emphasis on improving their try scoring ability, the real bolter could be Josh Cleeland whose attack has been outstanding in both the NSW and QLD Cups in recent seasons. A big bodied half with a wicked left foot step, he simply wasn't given a chance under Des Hasler, however again Dean Pay made sure he was not lost to the club once he signed on.
PNG international Rhyse Martin will also push for a spot in the game day 17 from Round 1 after an outstanding World Cup and with no recognised goal kicker (besides Moses Mbye at 58%) in the likely game day 17, this could help his chances. With Pay revealing that David Klemmer will likely start in the front row, with Adam Elliott moving to lock, a position on the left hand edge has potentially opened up for the 24 year old rookie.
Gains | Kieran Foran (Warriors), Aaron Woods, Jeremy Marshall-King, Moses Suli (Wests Tigers), Mason Cerruto (Panthers), Fa'amanu Brown (Sharks), Ofahiki Ogden (Warriors), Clay Priest (Raiders)
Losses | James Graham (Dragons), Josh Reynolds (Wests Tigers), Sam Kasiano (Storm), Richie Kennar (Rabbitohs), Craig Garvey, Brad Abbey (Raiders), Tyrone Phillips (Panthers), Brenko Lee (Titans)