25 rounds, 192 games, #Origin on a Sunday, and a September Grand Final.
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COACH Steve Folkes
CAPTAIN Steven Price
BACKS Depth is the major concern for the Dogs entering 2004, and it is no more apparent than in the centre position. With Nigel Vagana and Willie Talau heading elsewhere, the Dogs need young Ben Harris to step up and become the senior man at age 20. Harris proved he can perform last season, but there is a gaping hole waiting to be filled next to him in the lineup. They signed Jamaal Lolesi and Willie Tonga to compete for the role but neither matches the quality that departed. Braith Anasta will most likely move to the lock position, creating space for Johnathan Thurston at five-eighth and giving the Bulldogs more options in attack. Brent Sherwin runs the show from the halfback position and Anasta is a good foil, but many expect more improvement from Anasta by moving him closer to the action. The Dogs have a very dependable back three with fullback Luke Patten, sharpshooter Hazem El Masri and powerhouse winger Matt Utai all locked in as starters. Depth remains the issue; the club has no experienced cover for Sherwin at halfback and Patten?s potential backup Todd Polglase left to play for the Bunnies. FORWARDS Traditionally the Bulldogs have relied on a tough pack of forwards to intimidate their opponents and grind out yards. This year?s collection is no different. Captain Steven Price has evolved into one of the few props in the game capable of 80 minutes of work, while his partner up front Mark O?Meley is already a quality prop at 22. They represent the cornerstone in which the Bulldogs game plan is built on. Star forward Willie Mason can devastate defences like no other when he puts his mind to it, and will cement his place in the run-on team this season. Andrew Ryan was quietly one of the best buys of 2003, lending a major hand in managing the workload of the forwards. If Anasta ends up at lock, then Ryan will be Mason?s second row partner. Then there is the depth brigade, and the Dogs have are stacked with experience off the bench. Dennis Scott has proved his worth when spelling O?Meley and Price, Tony Grimaldi could see time at hooker and put pressure on incumbent rakes Corey Hughes and Adam Perry for game time, while Jamie Feeney will spring back into the top grade squad as a talented bench utility. Then Dogs have two young talents itching for a crack at the NRL in Roy Asotasi and Sonny Bill Williams. Overall, the Dogs have one of the deepest forward packs in the NRL.
KEY PLAYER SHERWIN ? ?Shifty? didn?t emulate his brilliant 2002 form for the Dogs, but on his day he reminded everyone just how good he can be. Possess the best short kicking game in the league and his passing skills are top notch, however Sherwin hardly runs the ball and for a player of his skill only a pair of line breaks all season was disappointing. Sherwin may have fallen behind the likes of Craig Gower and Brett Kimmorley in the race to be Andrew Johns? heir, but the Bulldogs will benefit from his determination to catch up.
ONE TO WATCH ASOTASI ? With Steven Price and Mark O?Meley entrenched as the starting props and the reliable Dennis Scott their rotation buddy, Roy Asotasi found it hard to get consistent minutes from the bench in 2003. This season however, the powerful Asotasi may not need to vie for that role. Asotasi will aim to replace the retired Steve Reardon in the Bulldogs second row, his athletic ability allowing him to switch from prop to second row easily during a match. He is an exciting prospect. BIGGEST ADVANTAGE Price and O?Meley ? At club level; this is the best duo in the game. They have marvelous work ethics and the talent to match. Everything the Dogs achieve week in week out is based on the hard yards these two make during the game. Although nearing the end of his career Price was a class act in 2003, while O?Meley is still quite young and will get better which is a scary thought given he has represented NSW already. It is the perfect combination for consistency up front, the key to any game plan.
BIGGEST DISADVANTAGE Salary Cap Squeeze ? Aside from allowing Travis Norton to head to the Cowboys, the Dogs felt the bite of the implications of their infamous 2002 Salary Cap Scandal. Losing Nigel Vagana will hurt this team out wide and despite not figuring in first grade for much of 2003, Willie Talau will be missed. Hamstrung by a reduced Salary Cap figure, the Dogs made do the best they could in retaining their top talent, but a number of talented youngsters slipped through their fingers. The Bunnies benefited the most by picking up Glenn Hall and Todd Polglase, both of which the Dogs wanted to keep. But like they say, you do the crime you do the time, and the Dogs will recover.
BOTTOM LINE On the field, 2003 is viewed as a missed opportunity for the Bulldogs, who after being forced out of the finals picture in 2002 had nothing less than a premiership on their minds. Their defeat by the Roosters in the Preliminary Final spelt the end of their quest for revenge with the same lineup, and their focus must be on the new season. Steve Folkes knows his side is capable of returning to the Top 4 even though he has lost some significant talent, but this was the case in at the end of 2000 and the Bulldogs recovered just fine. 2004 STRONGEST LINEUP 1. L Patten 2. M Utai 3. B Harris 4. W Tonga 5. H El Masri 6. J Thurston 7. B Sherwin 8. M O?Meley 9. C Hughes 10. S Price ? 11. W Mason 12. A Ryan 13. B Anasta Bench 14. T Grimaldi 15. D Scott 16. R Asotasi 17. J Feeney
Warrick NICOLSON ========================= Freelance Sports Journalist NICOLSON SPORTS CONSULTANCY Ph: 0402 851 485 Fax: 02 9653 1483 [email protected]