After being a finals mainstay for much of the decade, 2019 was the second consecutive disappointing year for the Bulldogs.
Salary cap problems after the 2017 season led to many quality players being moved on and mostly inexperienced players taking their place. Now, after a year or two learning their trade, the question is: are the likes of Lachlan Lewis, Reimis Smith, Jeremy Marshall-King and Renouf Toomaga ready to join the experienced Josh Jackson, Will Hopoate and Aiden Tolman in returning the Bulldogs to finals football?
The strength of the Bulldogs is grit and determination, shown last year through a resolute defence. Despite finishing 12th in 2019 their points against (477) was comparable to top eight sides Eels (473), Sharks (464) and Broncos (489). This is despite often leaking points through young players Jayden Okunbor and Nick Meaney as they adjusted their game to the previously unfamiliar wing position.
Okunbor, who transitioned to the wing from the forward pack, made particularly poor reads in defence, while Meaney, who started the season as a diminutive fullback, at times struggled physically against bigger opponents. Both are in the running to be starting wingers this year. However, they will have had an off-season to address their deficiencies. In doing so, the Bulldogs defence should only be stronger in 2020.
The two experienced players in the backline are fullback Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and centre Will Hopoate. DWZ is a very powerful runner and good support player but is lacking a little in creativity and a passing game, meaning much of the backline play will need to come from their centres. Hopoate is an extremely reliable player undoubtedly up to the task.
Remis Smith, tipped to move from the wing to the centres this year, has been very impressive in first grade thus far. I’d expect him to continue to impress this year despite being unproven in the centres.
The Bulldogs forward pack boasts many representative-quality backrowers. Captain Josh Jackson typifies the club’s defensive resolve with his tireless efforts every week. New Zealand representatives Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Corey Harawira-Naera and new signing Joe Stimson will all be competing for starting spots. A preseason injury and the ability to handle the middle will likely see Faitala-Mariner eventually return to the Bulldogs team via the interchange bench.
The middle forwards will need to improve for the Bulldogs in 2020 if they are going to improve as a team. As noted, they have been defensively sound, but their go forward was often poor. Tolman has been a great servant of the club and will continue to churn out metres. However, he lacks the ability to physically dominate opponents.
Dylan Napa has the necessary aggression but seems to put it all into defensive efforts rather than strong charges. If he can match his defensive intent with the ball in hand, he could really lead this Bulldogs pack and regain his Queensland State of Origin jersey.
However, I see the real improvement here coming from the younger brigade. The likes of Ofahiki Ogden and Renouf Toomaga made real progress last season and will continue to improve again this season. The young halves will be relying on these middle forwards to win the contact in order to give them the time and space to show their capabilities.
Of course for the Bulldogs attack to dramatically improve we will need to see one or two of their young halves step up this year. The annual Kieran Foran injury came early this year, leaving a spot open for Jack Cogger or Brandon Wakeham to join Lachlan Lewis in the halves. All three young halves have shown enormous potential, though none have really announced themselves as good consistent first-graders yet. If they can do so and invigorate the Bulldogs attack along the way, it will go a long way to taking the Bulldogs back to finals football.
So what do you think, Roarers? Where do you see Bulldogs finishing this year? Who should be the halves? Which young players will take their game to another level in 2020?