It was never a promising season for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs.
Matthew Gallagher looks at h...
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Coach Wayne Bennett will not be surprised if ageing hitter Tonie Carroll's last season for Brisbane turns out to be his best.
Bennett has never been surprised by anything Carroll does on the field.
Pound-for-pound Allan Langer remains the best player Bennett has coached in his 20 years at the club.
But Carroll is one of his favourites.
They've shared four premierships since Bennett handed the square-jawed hitman his chance in 1996 in round five against the Cowboys.
He had the last laugh at critics who questioned Carroll's selection for Queensland Origin duty in 1998.
It's little wonder he speaks with great pride and respect for a player who's never let him down.
"Tonie always brings something special to the team," said Bennett.
"He hasn't been the easiest guy to coach at different stages.
"When he got here as a youngster he was a poor trainer with a poor attitude to a lot of things.
"But he's turned all those things around.
"His talent was never going to be an issue because I saw him as a 16-year-old playing for Easts and he blew his opposition off the park that day.
"He's still blowing them off the park."
Carroll acknowledged he wasn't the easiest player to coach in his younger days and got one back on Bennett saying: "You weren't the easiest coach to play for either".
Their partnership split up for two seasons when Carroll played for Leeds in England.
But his heart was always with the Broncos, returning in 2003 specifically to be reunited with Bennett and play Origin again.
There's a certain irony in Bennett announcing he's leaving the Broncos in Carroll's final year.
"He's one of those few players I put in the category of being a warrior," said Bennett when he presented Carroll with lifetime membership for 10 years' service to the NRL club.
"I haven't seen much better hitters than him other than Peter Ryan and probably Trevor Gillmeister."
Bennett is a big fan of Carroll's courage.
"He's one of the few players who would run fearlessly into what we call the gap," said Bennett.
"Most players get a bit iffy going into that area but Tunza (nicknamed because he weighed 100kg) never lacked any fear or courage there."
Bennett had been toying with playing Carroll off the bench this season for his impact and to spare his body.
But Carroll has played so well in the trials Bennett will name him at lock when he announces his first up squad on Tuesday to play Penrith on Sunday.
"He's trained with such enthusiasm and played so well in the trials it's hard to leave him out of the team," said Bennett.
Captain Darren Lockyer said Carroll - 15 matches short of joining Brisbane's 200-game club - could still destroy teams.
"He can turn a game. He's one of those players who's explosive - he can turn a game with his defence or his attack," he said.
"His whole career has been dogged by injury and I think he'll be really keen to make this year special."
Lockyer said he had no self doubts about his own comeback from knee surgery despite going into the season opener without playing a trial game.