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NRL 2019 season preview: Canterbury Bulldogs

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21st February, 2019
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The Canterbury Bulldogs paint a picture of a rebuilding club, and while 2019 might not be their year results-wise, it must be one where they continually make positive strides forward.

When Des Hasler left the Bulldogs at the end of the 2017 season – one where they missed the top eight and struggled – it was clear there were going to be some rough times ahead for the men in blue and white.

2018 wasn’t a great year by any stretch of the imagination, but the biggest problem for the club is off-field, as they try to get the salary cap and books in order.

Dean Pay and the recruitment team have done a pretty solid job over the last few months though, moving on some veterans who were clearly chewing up cap space, and building plenty of young talent at the club.

Dean Pay

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

That may not bode for the best of years, given the amount of players in key spots who still have a lot to learn, but there is reason for fans of the ‘Dogs to smile with light now at the end of a long, dark, endless tunnel.

12th spot may have actually flattered them last year, but there were some dreadful performances mixed in with the odd win, and 2019 should be about taking the first steps to consistency. It might not be enough to win, but they don’t want to put in ugly performances and get blown off the park.

Club fact file

Colours: Blue and white
Home grounds: ANZ Stadium, Belmore Oval
Premierships: 8
Minor premierships: 7
Best finish in last five years: 2014 – runners up (finished 7th after regular season)
2018 finish: 12th
Coach: Dean Pay
Captain: Josh Jackson

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Squad

Josh Jackson (c), Jake Averillo, Fa’amanu Brown, Jack Cogger, Christian Crichton, Adam Elliott, Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Kieran Foran, Danny Fualalo, Corey Harawira-Naera, Morgan Harper, Kerrod Holland, Will Hopoate, Lachlan Lewis, Michael Lichaa, Jeremy Marshall-King, Rhyse Martin, Nick Meaney, Marcelo Montoya, Dylan Napa, Ofahiki Ogden, Jayden Okunbor, John Olive, Zac Saddler, Chris Smith, Reimis Smith, Sauaso Sue, Renouf To’omaga, Aiden Tolman, Francis Tualau, Brandon Wakeham

Changes
Ins: Jack Cogger (Newcastle Knights), Christian Crichton (Penrith Panthers), Corey Harawira-Naera (Penrith Panthers), Morgan Harper (promoted), Nick Meaney (Newcastle Knights), Dylan Napa (Sydney Roosters), Chris Smith (Sydney Roosters), Sauaso Sue (Wests Tigers)
Outs: Lachlan Burr (New Zealand Warriors), Greg Eastwood (Newtown Jets), Asipeli Fine (released), Matt Frawley (Huddersfield Giants), David Klemmer (Newcastle Knights), Brett Morris (Sydney Roosters), Josh Morris (Cronulla Sharks), Clay Priest (released), Zac Woolford (Newcastle Knights)

As mentioned in the intro above, the Bulldogs have been busy throughout the off-season moving on some veterans and freeing up space in the salary cap.

Of those veterans, the three big ones to go are Brett Morris, Josh Morris and of course Greg Eastwood, who really wasn’t playing that well by the time his days in blue and white came to an end.

He was barely demanding a first-grade spot in a struggling outfit. To emphasise that point, he has only been able to pick up a contract at the Newtown Jets.

» The Roar’s 2019 NRL preview series

Their biggest loss may well be David Klemmer though. He was one of their best last year, and a walk-up start to the Blues State of Origin team. He is scary when is on his game.

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Elsewhere, Lachlan Burr, Asipeli Fine, Matt Frawley, Clay Priest and Zac Woolford have all left the club. The six had potential, but had never really realised it or given the Bulldogs what they wanted, with Frawley the closest to doing so during his 31 games for the club.

Canterbury have made some great young additions to the squad, but their supposed big-name buy, Dylan Napa, has had a horrendous off-season.

Dylan Napa

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

I don’t need to repeat the accusations and allegations here, but it can’t be healthy for the Bulldogs preparations, not knowing whether the big off-season recruit will be able to play come Round 1.

They have signed a pair of youngsters from the Knights though, in Jack Cogger and Nick Meaney who could demand spots in key positions, while exciting second-rower Corey Harawira-Naera has been snagged from Penrith in a massive boost.

Talented forward Sauaso Sue joins the club from the Tigers, while Christian Crichton showed some promising signs at Penrith last year on the wing.

These signings ultimately improve Canterbury’s depth and give them a real juggling act for starting positions, which, even if not at the top of the game, is a good problem to have for coach Pay.

Spine
This is one of the most inexperienced spines in the competition, but when you talk about potential growth, it’s one of the more exciting ones.

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Former Newcastle duo Jack Cogger and Nick Meaney coming to the club, I expect them to be in the running.

Meaney will almost certainly be the starting fullback, and has impressed in junior rugby league, while Cogger could play in the halves alongside one of last year’s breakout stars, Lachlan Lewis.

Lewis is almost first picked in this Canterbury side, but it’s likely he plays alongside Kieran Foran, who is hoping to have put the worst of his injury woes behind him.

Michael Lichaa is going to need a monster season at hooker. Given the freedom to run and play his style of footy, he has been excellent since almost being forced out of the club, so hopefully, Canterbury fans will witness more of what he has played in the last 12 months throughout 2019.

Backs
The Bulldogs’ back line has a few questions about it, notably, who gets the final wingers spot.

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While Reimis Smith – another one of their youngsters – will definitely get a start, the other spot will come down to the impressive Marcelo Montoya or new recruit Christian Crichton.

While Montoya has shown defensive lapses at times, Crichton hasn’t been perfect either with errors a part of his game and only four tries in 20 games at the foot of the mountains last year.

Saving the argument, I think Pay will stick with Montoya, while the experienced utility Will Hopoate lines up in the centres alongside Kerrod Holland.

Marcelo Montoya of the Bulldogs is tackled

(AAP Image/SNPA, Adam Binns)

Depth may be a little bit of an issue in the backs.

Forwards
Dylan Napa will lead the way in what has the potential to be an exciting forward pack.

Workhorse Aiden Tolman will also line up in the front row alongside Napa, and with Tolman holding the forte down and Napa likely to show plenty of flare, they could complement each other nicely.

Adam Elliott will probably lock the scrum for Canterbury, while the second-row will feature young gun Rhyse Martin and consistent, hard-working skipper Josh Jackson.

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It gives them one of the better second rows in the competition, and with any consistency, they make like a little easier on the inexperienced spine.

Their bench replacements have also taken an upgrade this year with Sue and Harawira-Naera joined by Raymond Faitala-Mariner, who came on in leaps and bounds last year.

Danny Fualalo leads the back-up brigade, and given the players they have waiting on the bench, their depth in the forwards seems decent, and like it’ll be set for improvement this year as the competition for spots heats up.

Origin impact
With a rebuilding and inexperienced roster, the Bulldogs are every chance of having their entire 17 available through the State of Origin period.

Dylan Napa and Josh Jackson are both in the likely selection pool for Queensland and New South Wales, but given form and the state of the Blues side after winning the 2018 series, there is every chance both could get overlooked.

Likely best 17
1. Nick Meaney
2. Marcelo Montoya
3. Will Hopoate
4. Kerrod Holland
5. Reimis Smith
6. Lachlan Lewis
7. Kieran Foran
8. Aiden Tolman
9. Michael Lichaa
10. Dylan Napa
11. Josh Jackson
12. Rhyse Martin
13. Adam Elliott
14. Jeremy Marshall-King
15. Raymond Faitala-Mariner
16. Corey Harawira-Naera
17. Sauaso Sue

Keys to the season

Where will the points come from?
One of the big problems for the Bulldogs last year was some of their poor attack. They finished 2019 with the third-worst attacking record in the competition. While they did have some bad days in defence, it was their attack which had fans frustrated.

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When you’re not defending well enough to play a grinding style and low-scoring games, scoring tries becomes imperative, but with a changing spine and unsettled line-up, they were hard to come by for the vast majority of 2018.

The Bulldogs need to be better in attack throughout the 2019 season, and that’s going to be sparked by Lichaa out of dummy half, as well as a weight of possession and a team on the front foot allowing Lachlan Lewis and Foran (or Cogger) to have extra space and time to go to work.

Kieran Foran Bulldogs

(AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

What Canterbury must also do to fix their attacking woes is get the ball wide and do it early in sets of six.

They have plenty of pace on the wings, particularly through Reimis Smith, and with the creativity of Will Hopoate in the centres, a risk or two out of their own half wouldn’t be out of place.

Can Dylan Napa get back to his best?
The prized Bulldogs front row recruit would probably the first to admit he didn’t have a great 2018.

While Napa held onto his Origin spot, by the end of the season he was averaging just 78 metres per contact. He has a low work rate in a side who would go on to win the premiership.

On top of an already poor 2018 and change of scenery to Belmore, he has had the off-season from hell.

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Napa needs to let his footy do the talking in 2019 though, as he tries to get back to his best. At that level, he is nearly the most damaging prop in the competition.

He is tall, fast and when he runs hard, is ridiculously tough to stop for opposition defensive lines.

It’s going to be a tough ask, but Napa is the leader of the pack at the Bulldogs when you look at the names on paper, so he has to make this his year and improve those ailing numbers.

Rhyse Martin and Lachlan Lewis need to lead the way
Two of the juniors who burst onto the scene last year were Martin and Lewis.

In tough times for a club struggling with salary cap dramas, Martin and Lewis were staring lights, who gave Canterbury fans something to hang onto amongst the turmoil.

Apart from his goal kicking, Martin had good agility for a second rower, as well a reasonable acceleration. His eyes up vision and defence was also first class, and for someone with limited experience, he should go to the next level this year.

Rhyse Martin

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

While the Bulldogs struggled in the halves last year, it was a different story for Lewis. He came in during the second half of the season and had a strong kicking game which gave the Bulldogs some much-needed control.

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The talent is clearly there, but more importantly, this is a duo the Bulldogs can build the club around for the next ten years. Fans already like them, so they need to take things to the next level this year.

Fixtures

Round no. Date Time (AEDT) Opponent Venue TV
1 Sat Mar 16 3pm New Zealand Warriors MT.Smart Stadium Fox
2 Sun Mar 24 4:05pm Parramatta Eels ANZ Stadium Nine/Fox
3 Sun Mar 31 4:05pm Wests Tigers Campbelltown Stadium Nine/Fox
4 Sun Apr 7 4:05pm Melbourne Storm AAMI Park Nine/Fox
5 Sun Apr 14 4:05pm St George Illawarra Dragons Jubillee Oval Nine/Fox
6 Fri Apr 19 4:05pm South Sydney Rabbitohs ANZ Stadium Nine/Fox
7 Fri Apr 26 6pm North Queensland Cowboys ANZ Stadium Fox
8 Sat May 4 5:30pm Manly Sea Eagles Lottoland Fox
9 Sat May 11 3pm Newcastle Knights Suncorp Stadium Fox
10 Sat May 18 3pm Gold Coast Titans CBus Super Stadium Fox
11 Sun May 26 2pm Melbourne Storm Belmore Sports Ground Fox
12 Sat Jun 1 7:35pm Canberra Raiders ANZ Stadium Fox
13 Mon Jun 10 4pm St George Illawarra Dragons ANZ Stadium Fox
14 Sun Jun 16 4:05pm Sydney Roosters Sydney Cricket Ground Nine/Fox
15 Sun Jun 30 4:05pm Cronulla Sharks ANZ Stadium Nine/Fox
17 Fri Jul 12 7:55pm Newcastle Knights McDonald Jones Stadium Nine/Fox
18 Thu Jul 18 7:50pm Brisbane Broncos Suncorp Stadium Nine/Fox
19 Sun Jul 28 2pm Sydney Roosters ANZ Stadium Fox
20 Sat Aug 3 5:30pm Penrith Panthers Western Sydney Stadium Fox
21 Sat Aug 10 7:35pm Wests Tigers ANZ Stadium Nine/Fox
22 Sat Aug 17 7:35pm South Sydney Rabbitohs ANZ Stadium Nine/Fox
23 Thu Aug 22 7:50pm Parramatta Eels Western Sydney Stadium Nine/Fox
24 Thu Aug 29 7:50pm North Queensland Cowboys 1300 Smiles Stadium Nine/Fox
25 Sat Sep 7 5:30pm Brisbane Broncos ANZ Stadium Fox

The quick breakdown
Teams to play twice: Parramatta Eels, Wests Tigers, Melbourne Storm, St George Illawarra Dragons, South Sydney Rabbitohs, North Queensland Cowboys, Newcastle Knights, Sydney Roosters, Brisbane Broncos
Best home run: Round 11 – Round 15 (4 out of 5)
Worst away run: Round 1 – Round 5 (4 out of 5)
Five-day turnarounds: 3

Fixture analysis
The Bulldogs may well find themselves behind the eight ball in the early part of the season, given what is an exceptionally tough start.

They spend four of the first five weeks away from home, which includes long trips to Auckland and Melbourne, and potentially tough clashes in Sydney against the Tigers and Dragons. With a five-day turnaround before they take on the Rabbitohs and Cowboys, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume Canterbury could be one from seven.

Their draw will get a little more straightforward after that, but with their double up teams including the Roosters, Storm, Broncos, Dragons, Cowboys and Rabbitohs, Dean Pay’s side certainly aren’t going to have things easy.

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Their pursuit of finals, unless they are at the top of their game, could be conceivably all but over after the Origin window.

Prediction

Many have predicted that the Bulldogs will be bottom four, with some even mentioning they may well end up with the wooden spoon come the end of 2019.

I don’t think it’ll be quite that bad. Sure, it’s not going to be an easy season whichever way you look at it, but they have some good young talent in the side and a forward pack which is far from the worst in the game.

In terms of gaining experience and learning to play together as a unit, this is an important year for Canterbury, who have the nucleus to challenge for titles in the next few years if it all stays together.

They will win enough to escape the bottom four, but not only that, win enough to leave them looking ahead to a positive 2020 – one where finals should be on the agenda as the club continues to rebuild.

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12th.

Be sure to check back in on Monday, when we will move onto the team I’m tipping 11th – and fair warning, it’s a team who made last year’s top eight.