This is Part 10 of my series, speaking with fans from all NRL sides to see what it’s really like to support their team. This week, the Canterbury Bulldogs.
Founded in 1935, the Bulldogs are one of rugby league’s longest standing clubs.
A powerhouse in the 1980s, Canterbury took home four premierships in that decade, and were part of one of rugby league’s fiercest rivalries with the Parramatta Eels.
The team were the pride of Belmore with legendary surnames like Mortimer, Hughes, Folkes and Lamb.
But as the years went on, the ‘family club’ lost its way. Despite two more grand final victories in 1995 and 2004, the Bulldogs became synonymous with off-field drama.
The last few seasons haven’t been kind on the paddock either, with the team a shadow of their former selves.
But that all seems set to change with Phil ‘Gus’ Gould coming on as general manager of football, and the club going on a massive player shopping spree.
But wherever the team are on the ladder, their constant throughout it all is their loyal blue-and-white army.
I spoke to two of those passionate fans, Courtney and Nicoletta. Supporters from birth, both ladies were born into Bulldogs-loving families.
“I’m born and bred in Belmore and my dad was a massive Doggies fan,” Nicoletta began.
“I have very early memories of attending games as a kid, so it’s something that Dad passed on to both my brother and me.
“What really solidified it for me was that 2004 grand final. Although I was only six, I have some vivid memories of grand final night and the party that ensued in Belmore. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.
“Growing up in the area definitely contributed to my love for the club and I haven’t looked back since.”
Courtney’s dad is also a die-hard Canterbury fan.
“He bought me my first Terry Lamb jersey and I have been a Dogs fan ever since.”
I asked what the best and worst part about being a Bulldogs fan was. For Courtney, the best is getting out to the games.
“Taking my family out, dressing up in the Bulldogs’ colours and enjoying the day watching the boys play. It’s a bonus if we come home with the win.
“Worst part? Sometimes they can be very frustrating to watch. The last few years some of the games I attended it was like the boys played just because they had to. Being at the bottom of the table wouldn’t have been much motivation.”
Nicoletta replied: “The community is definitely the best part. I’m willing to say we have one of the most diverse fan-bases in the NRL.
“When the club is doing well, the way the community comes together as one to celebrate is truly incredible. You walk down the main drag of Belmore and wherever you look there’s some kind of Bulldogs insignia on a shop front or on a wall. I love it.
“The worst part? It’s been very tough over the last few years, and I don’t think the lows can get any lower. Off-field indiscretions, poor results, board politics… the list goes on.
“One of the worst things in my experience is the reputation our fans have for causing trouble and it’s tough to deal with. I think there’s good and bad everywhere, in any fan-base.”
Kyle Flanagan has made headlines for his performance as well as his position within the team. I asked the ladies their opinion of him and how they thought the club had handled it all.
“Since the day he signed, he has had a lot of pressure on him to just come into a new team and perform,” Courtney answered.
“I think that’s pretty tough when over the last few years, the combinations are ever changing in the key positions around him. Maybe if we had set combinations in that area that might take the pressure off him.
“The club have backed him though. I like that most recently Gus came out straight away and shut down any rumours. Put the right side around him – which will be this year – then judge him.”
Nicoletta added: “I personally believe him being benched and then dropped last season was absolutely the correct call.
“He had a great game in Round 1 last season, but then he just looked like he lost a lot of confidence.
“However, I do think he deserves another chance and I really hope he can hone in on his craft and find some confidence to be the player he is capable of being.”
The Bulldogs came 15th in 2020 and were wooden spooners in 2021. The team seem to always try hard but can’t turn effort into wins.
I asked why they thought they were unsuccessful the past few seasons.
“The team just didn’t have the talent, it’s as simple as that,” Nicoletta responded bluntly.
“At the end of 2021, the club released something like 12 players. And if you look at the key losses, the harsh reality is none of them were really key. There in itself was the issue.
“The other thing was inexperience. By memory, the 2021 Dogs side was the youngest behind the Panthers.
“In my view, when the players found a bit of confidence or form but then had a decision go against them or if they made a silly mistake, they’d put their heads down and that was the end of it. Inexperience has been a huge factor.”
Courtney added: “I don’t think they had strong players in key positions. You need to build your team around a one, six, seven and nine and I think most weeks it kept changing.
“We have made some decent signings for the year ahead, so it’s upwards from here!”
The Dogs were always known as the ‘family club’, and then attitudes and off-field incidents derailed that perception. I asked why they think they lost their way.
“It’s hard to say,” Nicoletta replied.
“I don’t think this is limited to any one club – we’ve seen plenty of issues across the NRL. I think things spiralled even more recently with office and board volatility.”
I was interested to see if they thought Trent Barrett is the right coach for the club.
“Yes, I think he is,” Courtney replied.
“He actually coached my brother in the Manly umbrella, and he said he is the best coach he ever had. From what I’ve heard he puts in a tremendous amount of effort with the players and staff.”
Nicoletta wasn’t too keen on Barrett when he was given the position.
“I’m still not sure if I am. But I believe he deserves the chance to show us what he can do and hopefully turn the on-field results around.”
With Gus Gould now at the Dogs, he is on a mission to bring the club back to its former glory.
How important is it to have someone like him at the club, and what kind of impact will he have?
“So important,” answered Nicoletta.
“His open communication channels and responding to fans on Twitter is also incredible. Since he’s come in, there is so much more transparency between fans and the club itself. Previously communication has been poor, but Gus has definitely changed that.
“He’s also got some great relationships with new players who have signed, and he’s doing some great work for pathways. I think the club is finally on the right track and a lot of that is because of him.”
“He attracts players. As seen at Penrith he builds an outstanding development program for the younger generations, which hopefully will bring them right through our club.”
I was interested to see how the ladies felt about Paul Vaughan and Matt Dufty joining the team after their COVID BBQ last year. Courtney was optimistic.
“Everyone makes mistakes, hopefully theirs leads to good things for the Bulldogs. They are both good players and I love watching them.”
Nicoletta felt the same.
“What they did last year was extremely disappointing, especially with Vaughan also having previous indiscretions.
“I think this is a chance for them to both put their heads down, prove themselves and earn back the trust of not just Bulldogs fans but also the wider NRL community.”
Along with Vaughan and Dufty, the Dogs have some huge names joining the club. Which superstar recruit were they most excited about?
“Goodness, there are too many to choose!” Nicoletta laughed.
“I am beyond excited to see Matt Burton in the blue and white. It’ll be very interesting to see what he can do in his preferred position of five-eighth. Very keen!”
Courtney is excited about Josh Addo-Carr.
“His speed and skill are outstanding. Having been coached for years under the best coach in the world Craig Bellamy, I think he can bring a lot of experience to the team.”
I asked who the girls past and present favourite Dogs players were.
“Past? Easy, Terry Lamb,” replied Nicoletta.
“Terrific on the field and he’s absolutely wonderful off the field. Always a pleasure to chat to.
“Current? It’s a funny one and a lot of people don’t get it, but I absolutely love Jackson Topine. The way he conducts himself at just 20 years old is incredible and so inspiring.
“He just has a great vibe about him. He was even surprised to find out he was my favourite player when I met him at a recent members’ day!”
Courtney agreed with Nicoletta about Lamb.
“And my current is Josh Jackson. Every week he runs out and wears his heart on his sleeve, gives it his all.”
What are the ladies looking forward to for next season?
“Seeing our marquee signings in key positions, which I think can make the difference in getting some more wins,” replied Courtney.
“I am looking forward to watching them run out in the blue and white!”
Nicoletta is also excited to see the new players take the field and is hoping for a more successful season.
“It can’t get much worse, can it? Also being able to go to games again. Praying for minimal COVID disruptions so I can put my season membership to good use!”
And like always, if they could say anything to the team, what would it be?
“Time to get out of the rut and win,” Nicoletta replied.
“You’ve got the whole community behind you. All we want is your best. Good luck for the season ahead!”
Courtney also had positive words.
“We are all behind you. Can’t wait to see what this year brings. Give your all in that jersey and I will see you in September when we make the finals.”
In 2022, the Bulldogs are ready to put the past few seasons behind them. They have a star-studded line-up, and a big off-season under their belt. The team will be busting for the gates to open so they can get out on the field.
And their fans cannot wait for Round 1, when Gus lets the Dogs out.