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Around the Grounds: Gould already weaving his magic, Ponga cagey on long-term future

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26th November, 2021
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If there was any doubt that Phil Gould is one of the shrewdest operators in the business, the Bulldogs general manager has proven it once again in the past week.

Bringing Gould to Belmore has already paid off with the club signing premiership-winning Panthers second-rower Viliame Kikau and star Eels hooker Reed Mahoney from 2023.

Put simply, he makes things happen.

Add those recruits to an already much-improved roster and suddenly Canterbury could re-emerge as genuine top-four contenders in the coming seasons.

For years as they languished near the bottom of the ladder, operating on a tightened salary cap due to back-ended deals, Bulldogs fans clung to the hope of the club being able to splash the cash in 2021.

But surely even the most ardent of Canterbury tragics couldn’t have imagined such a potent signing spree.

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For a team that struggled to attack this year, the Dogs will almost be spoiled for choice when it comes to attacking weaponry next season.

It’s hard to imagine them battling for points when their backline will include the blinding speed of Josh Addo-Carr and Matt Dufty combined with the skill and instincts of playmaker Matt Burton.

In the forwards, they’ve done some savvy business in acquiring Tevita Pangai Jr and Paul Vaughan.

When Pangai Jr agreed to join Canterbury, he was on the outer at the Broncos. He showed what a destructive asset he is when in the mood during his hit-and-run mission at Penrith.

Vaughan, meanwhile, accepted a cut-price deal in the wake of being moved on by the Dragons. This is a front-rower who just two seasons ago was playing for Australia.

And he revealed on the Bloke in a Bar podcast this week that he’d remarkably been playing with double vision this year due to the aftereffects of a poke in the eye late in 2020.

“That’s been one of the positives – with the time off, I’ve been able to have the chance to get the surgery done so my vision is perfect now,” Vaughan said.

“It was very tough playing with that this year. But now my body is sweet, I’m ready to go.

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“It’s hard enough playing first grade with perfect vision. And only really my close mates knew and obviously my teammates and the [Dragons] club.

“There were times there before the game where I was like, man, I don’t know how I’m going to do this today. You could even see that I’d sort of pop my head down so I could have perfect vision to catch the ball from dummy-half.

“There were times where I just assumed where it was going and hoped for the best.

“I guess it was good too at the same time because I played some good footy was a busted eye. So I was like, oh, if I fix my eye I’ll be back to playing good footy again,” he added.

And with a point to prove, having only inked a one-year deal, don’t be surprised to see the best of Vaughan.

Whether the Dogs can truly hang with the heavyweights in 2022 remains to be seen. But after an agonising lean patch, even being back in top eight calculations will be a positive.

Then when Mahoney and Kikau arrive for the following campaign, perhaps the Dogs will be primed to return to their former glory.

Some may argue the halfback position is still a weak point. However, with a steady halves partner alongside him, Kyle Flanagan can blossom into the consistent first-grader he was touted to become.

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Whatever you think of Flanagan, it speaks volumes that Trent Robinson chose him to replace Cooper Cronk at the Roosters as they chased a premiership three-peat.

Though it didn’t quite work out in 2020, Flanagan still possesses strong organisational skills and a healthy self-belief. He’ll enjoy a ton more strike outside him and a formidable forward pack getting him on the front foot so he can focus on steering the team around the park.

Coach Trent Barrett, too, will benefit from being able to structure his game-plans around heavier artillery.

It’s worth remembering how highly the Panthers players sung Barrett’s praises for their silky offense when they broke records en route to last year’s minor premiership. He’ll certainly have the cattle to achieve significant improvement.

Gould clearly has a vision and his recruit targets are clearly buying into it. When Gus is passionate about something, it’s hard not to get excited too.

Anyone who’s watched one of Gould’s famous pre-State of Origin speeches on Channel 9 can attest to that.

It’s been a difficult five years for the Bulldogs, but there’s plenty to be like about where they’re headed.

Ponga address Dolphins rumours, positional switch

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There always seems to be a question mark over Kalyn Ponga’s future.

First there were fears the Newcastle star could defect to rugby union to chase a dream playing for the All Blacks. Now, he’s being linked to the NRL’s incoming Dolphins franchise.

Ponga has player options in his favour for 2023 and 2024, meaning he could opt against activating that portion of his current contract and join the inaugural Dolphins team after next season.

Fronting the media this week, a somewhat cagey Ponga said: “I’ve never really thought about my contract.

“My support around me, obviously my old man [Andre, who negotiates his contracts] to be honest, he deals with that. I’ve always just focused on the Knights.

“I want to be here, I want to win a comp. That is really my goal. I really want to drive that.”

While Ponga denied having spoken to Dolphins coach Wayne Bennett, he said he was “not too sure” whether his father Andre had been in discussions with the master mentor.

Kalyn Ponga sprints away from the Cowboysand#039; Tom Dearden.

(Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

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Elsewhere, the 23-year-old shut down speculation that he could make a full-time switch into the halves next season to cover for the departure of halfback Mitchell Pearce.

“I will be at fullback,” he declared. “I’m excited to be fullback this year.

“I think I have still got a long way to go in that position. The way I sort of play fullback, I can play as a half in attack, but the one will be on my jersey.”

If the word of newly-appointed Newcastle head of performance Hayden Knowles is anything to go by, Ponga could be in for a massive 2022 season.

Knowles recently had coffee with Ponga and was struck by his hunger to win.

“He has this burning desire going on right now that I’m not sure existed before. But in conversation, what I heard, that’s going to lead to some special times,” Knowles told the KNIGHTS // HQ Podcast.

Hynes out to break Storm curse

Nicho Hynes was still meant to be on holidays this week, lapping up his time off after a breakout season for Melbourne before linking with Cronulla.

But impressively, he cut short his break to begin pre-season training at the Sharks.

At 25, Hynes is craving the responsibility of leading a team around the field. While he excelled at fullback for the Storm in Ryan Papenhuyzen’s absence this season, he made clear that he expects to play in the halves for his new club.

“I want to try and be a leader of this team, I want to be a main player in this team – the guy that they look to on the field when it’s needed,” Hynes said.

“I just think that controlling the game was something I was good at when I was a bit younger so hopefully I can get back to that again.”

It’s been an eventful week for Hynes, who felt compelled to clarify his sexuality on Instagram after a photo of him and his best mate was misinterpreted.

“I am 100 percent interested in women,” Hynes posted.

That wasn’t the only myth that Hynes moved to bust. He believes the perception that Storm players aren’t as effective when they move clubs is rubbish.

“There is obviously a lot of noise about people going from the Storm and that they don’t go as good but I think that is pretty crap to be honest,” Hynes said.

“It was very vocal up in Queensland when I was linked to the Broncos with people saying that with Storm players you have to be careful [signing them].

“I just don’t think that’s an appropriate thing to say. [Craig Bellamy] does get the best out of you at the Storm but why can’t other coaches?

Nicho Hynes

Nicho Hynes (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

“If you put in the work, I can’t see why you can’t be as good as at the Storm.”

Judging by his early return to training, hard work is something that Hynes won’t shirk.

Hynes will be joined by former Melbourne teammate Dale Finucane in the Shire.

“Hopefully Dale and I can bring some leadership qualities to help make this into a winning team,” Hynes said.

“Look at the roster, it’s young and exciting, I believe they should have been in the eight this year and we’re going to work as hard as we can this pre-season, going into next year, then hopefully we get to that finals footy.”

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The pair will go from being mentored by Bellamy, one of the greatest coaches of all time, to highly-rated rookie Craig Fitzgibbon.

“Fitzy is bringing some good structures and systems to build a really good culture,” Hynes said.

“It’s exciting and I think the town of Cronulla should be excited as well. I think the town should get around us this pre-season and look forward to playing back at PointsBet [Stadium] next year.”

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