In 2004 the Bulldogs experienced the highs and lows that high profile sport can provide. The year began with a sex scandal but finished in premiership glory.
It is a testament to the character of the club and its players that they were able to bounce back from the Coffs Harbour rape allegations and all the bad publicity that accompanied the saga. The Bulldogs could have been excused for letting their game drop, but Steve Folkes and his players responded in style.
The Bulldogs began the season with the scandal still very much front page news. Parramatta were the unfortunate victims of a fired up Bulldogs outfit in Round 1. The Bulldogs scored 36 unanswered points in the first half to sound a warning to the rest of the NRL. In his first grade debut utility forward Sonny Bill Williams created havoc with his strong running style and clever flick passes. He scored a try and had a hand in two others. A star was born.
The Bulldogs maintained solid but unspectacular form during the first couple of months of the season, while the off field controversy continued. They were given a football lesson by the Sydney Roosters in Round 3 and several other wins lacked polish.
Football Manager Garry Hughes was sacked for failing to enforce the club?s code of conduct at Coffs Harbour. Chief Executive Steve Mortimer resigned in the midst of the turmoil.
The six Bulldogs players alleged of rape at Coffs Harbour were cleared in late April. The NRL fined the club $500,000 in total, $150,000 for misconduct during and after their pre-season visit to Coffs Harbour, and a $350,000 suspended penalty providing there was no further misconduct between now and the end of the 2006 season.
The turning point in the Bulldogs 2004 season came in Round 13 as they sought revenge against the Sydney Roosters. The Bulldogs clicked in devastating fashion, thumping the Roosters 40-12. Centre Willie Tonga had a field night scoring three tries, really showing up opposite number Justin Hodges with his ability to consistently get on the outside of him. A few days later Tonga replaced Hodges in the Queensland State of Origin side. It was a remarkable rise from Parramatta Premier League player to Origin centre for Tonga.
The Bulldogs were the form team in the second half of the season. They strung together 10 consecutive victories. They lost just once more in the regular season, to Melbourne at Olympic Park. They were in awesome form against fellow top four teams, Brisbane and Penrith, putting 46 points on both. Their 46-18 win over the Broncos at Suncorp Stadium showcased all their forward power, defensive grit and class out wide.
The Bulldogs missed the minor premiership on percentages to the Sydney Roosters, but entered the finals series as premiership favourites. Any complacency that might have existed was knocked out of them after a shock loss to North Queensland in the qualifying finals at Telstra Stadium. The Bulldogs hit back strongly to overpower Melbourne 43-18 in Week 2, and silenced a lot of critics when they defeated 2003 premiers Penrith in Week 3. New Zealand Warrior bound skipper Steven Price tore his medial ligament in the first 2 minutes and had to come straight off, not to return. The Panthers applied plenty of first half pressure, but the Bulldogs defence held firm to keep Penrith?s lead to just 4 points at halftime. The Bulldogs ran away with the game in the second half to qualify for their first grand final since 1998.
The Bulldogs also trailed at halftime by 7 points in the Grand Final against the Sydney Roosters. The game was scrappy in terms of handling but very intense in the physical stakes. Matt Utai crossed for his second try and Hazem El Masri powered his way over three defenders to get the Bulldogs across the line 16-13.
While Steven Price missed out on playing in the grand final, stand in skipper Andrew Ryan did a great job as he had done all season in the back row. His ankle tap on Rooster Michael Crocker in the dying seconds denied the Roosters their last chance to snatch the game. Mark O?Meley also capped off a fine season with a deserved premiership winners ring. The ?Ogre? is now one of the game?s premier props. Big Willie Mason fought back from staunch criticism of his off field antics to end the season with a Clive Churchill Winners Medal.
Steven Folkes was a deserving winner of the Dally M Coach of the Year Award. To guide his players towards the premiership, as talented as they are, wasn?t easy with all the turmoil the club faced off the field.
PREDICTION FOR 2005: The Bulldogs have a great chance of making it back to back titles and they should be expected to at least make the grand final again with the quality at their disposal. They will miss the on field leadership of veteran front rower Steven Price next year, but they have several players with good leadership qualities. Andrew Ryan appears to be the logical choice as captain, although Willie Mason has shown that with the right attitude and focus, he can be a very inspirational forward. If he uses his immense size and power to his full advantage he?s very hard to stop. Sonny Bill Williams is only going to get better, as he gains more big match experience while playing for New Zealand in the Tri Series. Willie Tonga is also an Australian Test Centre and displays great maturity for a man who?s only played one full season of first grade.
5 Manly Sea Eagles Telstra Stadium WIN 28-26 6 New Zealand Warriors Westpac Trust Stadium WIN 24-18 7 South Sydney Rabbitohs Aussie Stadium WIN 34-8 8 Brisbane Broncos Telstra Stadium WIN 25-18 9 Newcastle Knights Energy Australia Stadium LOSS 6-32 10 St.George-Illawarra Dragons WIN Stadium WIN 38-12 11 Wests Tigers Express Advocate Stadium LOSS 26-30 12 Penrith Panthers Penrith Stadium LOSS 29-40 13 Sydney Roosters Telstra Stadium WIN 40-12 14 BYE
15 Canberra Raiders Express Advocate Stadium WIN 24-20 16 North Queensland Cowboys Dairy Farmers Stadium WIN 32-18 17 Manly Sea Eagles Brookvale Oval WIN 50-32 18 Melbourne Storm The Sydney Showground WIN 25-18 19 Cronulla Sharks Toyota Park WIN 37-26 20 Wests Tigers Campbelltown Stadium WIN 24-20 21 Penrith Panthers Telstra Stadium WIN 46-20 22 North Queensland Cowboys The Sydney Showground WIN 36-16 23 Brisbane Broncos Suncorp Stadium WIN 46-18 24 Melbourne Storm Olympic Park LOSS 12-22 25 Newcastle Knights Telstra Stadium WIN 52-6 26 New Zealand Warriors Ericsson Stadium WIN 54-10 Qualifying Final North Queensland Cowboys Telstra Stadium LOSS 22-30 Semi Final Melbourne Storm Aussie Stadium WIN 43-18 Preliminary Final Penrith Panthers Aussie Stadium WIN 30-14 GRAND FINAL Sydney Roosters Telstra Stadium WIN 16-13 22 WINS, 6 LOSSES, FOR: 871 AGAINST: 566 POSITION: PREMIERS, 2nd in Minor Premiership
Bulldogs ? 2005 Player Movement
Gains: Ben Czislowski (Broncos\\Clydesdales, 2yrs), Chris Armit (Eels 2yrs), Nathan Armit (Eels 2yrs), Marvin Karawana (Wainuiomata, NZ, 2yrs), Isaac Kaufman (Easts Tigers), Dallas McIllwain (Easts Tigers)
Losses: Glen Hughes (retired), Johnathon Thurston (Cowboys, 3yrs), Hutch Maiva (Cronulla, 2yrs), Steven Price (Warriors, 3yrs), Dennis Scott (Storm, 2yrs), Jamie Feeny (Storm, 3yrs)
By Michael Allen ? Freelance Journalist