Tomorrow’s meeting involving the board of the Canterbury Bulldogs and Des Hasler sees the current and future direction of the club under discussion.
The allegations of a perceived lack of understanding of club culture that have been levelled at Hasler by former players such as Terry Lamb and Steve Mortimer have somehow grown legs, and the board have acted on an issue that has simmered away since the club’s meek exit from the finals at the hands of the Panthers.
The real issues that lie at the heart of the Bulldogs’ poor semi-final performances and inconsistency over the last two years need to be addressed, rather than the meeting being some pointless esoteric talk-fest about culture.
Whatever decisions are made, the attacking potency of the squad needs urgent attention. This will take time and could see the club experience a short-term period of poor results.
I predict a two to three-year period of rebuild and adjustment – unfathomable a few short years ago.
That prediction, if true, would be an unfamiliar situation for the Bulldogs’ faithful, whose high expectations have been matched by remarkable consistency over the last 40 years.
Ten grand final appearances over that time have produced six premierships, however since the arrival of Hasler and the initial promise of the 2012 season, things have taken an obvious turn for the worse.
2012 saw a skilful forward-back move the ball consistently around the ruck and execute some of the best combinations we have seen from a big pack in NRL history. They were a delight to watch and Ben Barba’s breakout season added to their potency.
It appears that Des put the cue in the rack immediately after and the Dogs have been impotent in attack since. In two of the last three seasons, they have been the lowest scoring team among those that qualified for the top eight.
In a nutshell, Hasler has continued to assemble an intimidating pack of forwards to execute a rather bland and boring style of football, at the expense of developing a more attacking and aggressive brand that could result in more points.
The conservative approach towards developing the team is starting to show enormous cracks, as teams like Canberra, North Queensland and Cronulla are trailblazing their way to success through a refreshing emphasis on scoring points and expansive attack.
Of course, there is always a happy medium to be found and this is the magic formula that Melbourne has been able to achieve over the last decade or so.
At times, they do look stodgy, yet over the course of the journey, the Storm have managed to score points far more easily and consistently than the Bulldogs.
Rather than concerning themselves with the DNA of the club and its identity, I suggest a closer look at the football department and some of the decisions that have been made during Hasler’s reign.
Much of this was pointed out in my article ‘A letter to Des Hasler from a confused, frustrated Doggies fan‘, which looked at the issues in a somewhat sarcastic manner, however the time for smiles is gone. Something is seriously foul in the kennel.
The failure to regenerate the backline has been alarming. The 30-year-old Morris twins will once again provide the best opportunities for tries next year, with Curtis Rona moving on after a somewhat disappointing season. Kerrod Holland has not lived up to the hype that surrounded his debut game and warrior Sam Perret has retired.
The retention and acquisition decisions made around the backline are mystifying and I am finding it difficult to pencil in a starting seven for Round 1, 2017.
Back-up Sharks half Josh Cleeland was signed with an eye to the future rather than the present, and doesn’t solve the serious ball-playing and kicking deficiencies.
Mid-season recruit Asipeli Fine has a limited three games of experience with the Tigers and Richard Kennar arrives from Melbourne with great promise yet only eight games under his belt.
Former Canberra winger Brenko Lee has also been recruited to fill the void in the backline, yet with only ten games in the NRL doesn’t bring experience or proven quality.
These three will be a part of the backline at some stage, particularly if Will Hopoate isn’t playing on Sundays and one, or both, of the Morris twins are involved in representative football again. Their limited experience is concerning.
Lachlan Lewis is a promising young half with royal blood in his veins, yet with Cleeland waiting in the wings and incumbents Josh Reynolds and Moses Mbye around, one wonders why a marquee centre or winger wasn’t the number one target.
The signings are young and with the additions of Rhyse Martin and Lamar Liolevave, both second rowers, the coach is adding stocks to areas in which the Bulldogs are already quite blessed.
Other decisions must also come into question. The signing of Tony Williams is the most farcical decision I have ever seen from the club. Obviously, the connection between the coach and ‘marquee’ player led to his signing, and Hasler must answer to that.
The release of Michael Ennis and Dale Finucane, for different reasons, are also errors made under the watch of Hasler.
Ennis has shown that he can still be an attacking weapon and his success this season highlights that it wasn’t his play that was the issue, more the role that Hasler insisted he play.
Michael Lichaa has been the victim of the same role and shown nothing in attack throughout the course of the season. I’m not sure what Lichaa is capable of apart, from 40 to 50 tackles per game. The signing of hooker Zac Woolford is interesting and rumours of a move away from the halves for either Mbye or Reynolds complicates the picture even further.
Finucane showed enormous potential and Craig Bellamy has tapped into it well. It’s hard to comprehend why money wasn’t spent to lock up Finucane, who was developing as a wonderfully consistent first grader.
Whichever way you look at it, the squad appears weak in terms of point-scoring potential. Perhaps Tyrone Phillips will take another step forward after some promising performances, or maybe Fine, Kennar and Lee will find their feet early and provide some more spark.
Somehow this seems unlikely, as the depth in the backs looks to be seriously tested again.
What concerns me most is that Hasler may, once again, have the mandate to attack through his forwards, who remain one of the biggest and meanest packs around.
The problem is, the game seemed to shift this year, and the Bulldogs were left eating the dust of those more daring and cavalier.
Whether Hasler is still the coach on Friday night or not, it will take this team a few years to develop the potency and consistency they will need in attack, if they are to match the front runners of 2016.
I hope I am wrong, yet there might just be a few years of pain ahead, as the premiership window is closed in the short term.