As far as spectacles go, the Dragons versus Bulldogs game last Sunday was one best forgotten.
Indeed, if anything it lent plenty of weight to the widespread suspicion that the NRL lacks the quality of players to field a 17th team when the second Brisbane club inevitably enters the comp in 2023.
For all the wrong reasons, these two proud clubs share a number of parallels as far as recent on and off-field performances go.
The Bulldogs were runners up in 2014 and aside from a qualifying final loss in 2016 haven’t been sighted in September since. The Dragons have fared little better and following a run of success in the halcyon days under Wayne Bennett, they have a solitary final win from two appearances dating back to 2011. And based on the first two months of the season, neither team will be playing in September this year either.
And before Dragons fans point to the fact their team is currently in the eight, with a win over the Eels behind them, Sunday’s replay followed by a look at their remaining draw suggests life is about to get a lot harder and they’re likely to fall well short of the top eight. The Bulldogs, with a solitary win to their name, are battling to do much more than avoid the wooden spoon at this stage.
Interestingly, both clubs sacked their coaches last year, each showing the door to club greats who were either given too long, or who were dealt a rough hand depending on who you ask.
Over the past several years, it’s difficult to recall too many boom youngsters coming out of either team. Matt Dufty is an exception, but of the Dragons and Bulldogs teams who lined up Sunday, they boasted just five and four players respectively who debuted within those teams. It must be noted, the Dragons played two debutants in that game.
Contrast that with the Panthers, who on the weekend fielded 13 players who debuted with the club, against a Sharks team with seven local juniors.
So with neither the Dragons or Bulldogs exactly flushed with junior talent, or showing a great recent aptitude at developing young talent, they’ve turned to the player market to improve their on-field fortunes and they’re certainly each taking vastly different approaches to get there.
The Bulldogs started by signing the highly regarded Trent Barrett as head coach on a three-year deal. They then signed Nick Cotric from the Raiders, Jack Hetherington from the Panthers, Corey Waddell from the Sea Eagles, plus off-season pick-ups in the form of Kyle Flanagan and Corey Allan.
In shifting from the wing to centre, Cotric hasn’t always looked at home and certainly doesn’t have the look of a strike centre. For a guy who played for NSW and Australia in 2019 and had a try-scoring rate of one every two games for the Raiders, Cotric has been well short of that pace this year.
It could be argued that Jack Hetherington is playing in the wrong era and his current five-match suspension suggests as much. Corey Waddell has been solid in the back row and from the bench and has appeared in every game so far.
Kyle Flanagan is learning life in the NRL is a lot tougher without a quality team around him and Corey Allan is yet to rediscover the form he showed in late 2020 with the Rabbitohs.
Five signings and it’s difficult to argue any of them have enhanced their reputations this year. Importantly though, if we look at the respective age of those four, Hetherington and Waddell are the oldest at 24 years, which suggests all five have plenty of years ahead of them.
Added to the mix next year will of course be 21-one-year-old Matt Burton, Brent Naden also from the Panthers, along with Josh Addo-Carr, with the latter pair both turning 26 by the time they arrive at Belmore. It’s a simple observation, but the Bulldogs are clearly prioritising youth in their signings.
Then we turn to the Dragons, who presented Anthony Griffin with a two-year deal. With a reputation as being old-school, Griffin is on his third NRL coaching gig and has yet to take a team as far as a preliminary final.
He must feel as though it’s his last chance and two years is a short leash with which to return the Dragons to some semblance of relevance. The Dragons’ major off-season signings were Jack Bird, who hardly played due to injury over the past few seasons, Andrew McCullough from the Broncos, plus bench forwards Daniel Alvaro and Kaide Ellis. They have added a couple of in-season additions, Josh McGuire from the Cowboys and Billy Burns from the Panthers.
The upside of signing the highly experienced McCullough and McGuire is that you know exactly what you’re going to get from them. Of course, the downside is that they won’t exactly surprise you either. Let’s not forget they also toyed with the idea of signing a 32-year-old outside back who was 11 years removed from his last game of top-flight league.
This brings us to the current Dragons roster. The team that ran out against the Bulldogs on Sunday afternoon had four of their starting forward pack on the wrong side of 30, plus a halves combination in the same boat. All told, they had an average age of 25.9 years and a collective 1799 games among the 17.
Despite fielding two injury-forced debutants, the Dragons were a handful of games off running out the most collective games among their 17 on the weekend.
It’s generally a given that players rarely get better when they pass 30 and it’s hard to argue a Dragons team carrying that much mileage will either. By contrast, Sunday’s Bulldogs – with an average age of 24.7 and a mere 1032 collective games – fall well short in the experience and age stakes.
And this is where I come to the point. The Bulldogs have clearly hit rock bottom. Four years and counting living largely among the bottom four suggest as much and while it’s ugly at the moment, the club is clearly prepared to play the long game and build their way back to the summit.
The Dragons, on the other hand, are aiming for the here and now, playing with a roster stacked with old heads and an old-school coach racing the clock to secure another contract. The result is a playing group closer to the back of the pack than the front and showing little capacity for improvement.
In short, the Dragons are desperately hoping to catch lightning in a bottle and even if the stars align, they can’t realistically hope for anything more than a seventh or eighth place finish.
And while that may be enough to trigger a performance clause for Griffin, it would do little to suggest a higher placed finish is around the corner.
So while the Dragons may have picked up the win on the weekend and may also be a lot higher up the ladder, I’d wager Bulldogs fans have more reasons for optimism.