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Who's in the running to replace Barrett – and what do they need to fix first?

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16th May, 2022
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So, farewell then, Trent. Canterbury’s Barrett dalliance has ended in predictable fashion, with the club exactly where they were when he took over, and with a pretty pitiful record of five wins in 34 games at the helm.

The candidates are already being lined up to replace him, with a crucial Spoonbowl against the Tigers looming on Friday night at Leichhardt Oval.

David Furner, one of Barrett’s assistants, and Mick Potter, the reserve grade coach, are the early frontrunners to take the team for that clash, but the long-term replacement is still a massive question mark.

Furner does have NRL coaching experience, with Canberra Raiders, but was widely seen to have been a failure in the top job and led the Raiders to their second worst finish ever in 2013. His most recent head coach role, at Leeds Rhinos, was an unmitigated disaster.

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Potter was most recently in the NRL between 2012 and 2014 at the Wests Tigers, but was not renewed and later complained about political infighting that held the club back – so perhaps not a perfect fit for the situation at the Bulldogs.

The obvious name to be thrown into the ring would be that of Shane Flanagan: the 2016 premiership-winning coach is the father of Bulldogs halfback Kyle and is seemingly always touted for another job in the competition whenever a coach is under threat.

Flanagan excelled in coaching gritty, defensive football at Cronulla, however, when the principal problem at the Bulldogs is with their attack, and his appointment would also heap yet more pressure on his son.

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Paul Green has also been touted. The 2015 premiership winner with the Cowboys left his position as Queensland coach in order to pave a way back to the NRL, but was passed on for the Broncos gig and might well be unwilling to take a chance on the Bulldogs in their current predicament.

Cameron Ciraldo, the assistant coach at Penrith, is regularly seen as next in line for a head coaching position. His role at the Panthers focuses on defence, which, again, is not the deficiency at Canterbury, and he might see the role as a poisoned chalice when other, better opportunities might come his way down the track.

The pathway from Penrith to Belmore is the one taken by both Barrett and football manager Gus Gould, and Ciraldo could well give it a wide berth.

John Morris, ditched by Cronulla last year, is on staff at South Sydney and has been widely credited with some of the attacking systems now on display at both clubs, with deep analytics suggesting his focus on offensive structure is now being played out to great success under Craig Fitzgibbon.

His knock was always a failure to compete with top teams, but given Canterbury can’t compete with any team, that might not be as big an issue.

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Steve Price, also in the Cronulla system, returned to Australia after a successful stint in Super League with Warrington, and could be tempted to return to head coaching if the offer was right.

Brad Fittler is a left-field option but the NSW Origin coach has a long association with Canterbury’s football manager Phil Gould and has harboured a desire to return to the NRL ranks.

From the Super League itself, there are two standout candidates. St Helens coach Kristian Woolf is going for a third championship in succession and has also overseen the massive improvement in Tonga on the international stage.

Whether he could be convinced to jump ship from Saints midway through the season, or to take a job like that at Canterbury, is highly questionable. If they were to promise him the role from 2023 onwards, it would be a prescient move.

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The other option could be Steve McNamara. The Catalans boss has revolutionised the French club and turned them into a Super League powerhouse, winning their first Challenge Cup in 2018 and making their first grand final last year, where they lost to St Helens.

McNamara also coached England to the 2013 World Cup and has experience in Australia with both the Sydney Roosters under Trent Robinson and New Zealand Warriors under Stephen Kearney. It would be a brave move for an NRL club to go for an English coach, but McNamara is as good a candidate as has existed for a very long time.

Newcastle winger Edrick Lee gets past Canterbury fullback Matt Dufty to score. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

What does the new Bulldogs coach need to fix first?

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Whoever replaces Barrett, they will have a huge job on their hands to fix one of the most dysfunctional teams in the NRL.

Stats can tell you a lot in rugby league – more on which later – but in truth, you didn’t really need to know much about the game to see that the Dogs weren’t very good at it.

The loss to Newcastle, who hadn’t won in seven, at Magic Round was desperately poor in both result and, more importantly, performance: Canterbury were dreadful and appeared to have lost the most vital aspect that had kept them going through their rough trot, which had been belief.

The mind wanders to their 66-0 defeat in front of nobody against Manly last year, when even with the game absolutely gone and the team on the end of the worst flogging of the year, they were still putting in effort. They never chucked it.

My belief in Barrett’s tenure stemmed from that. Buy-in is the hardest part and he appeared to have it. Even when they lost six in a row this season, I would have said they were still giving everything in all but the crushing loss to Melbourne.

That appeared to have dissipated in recent weeks, with crushing losses to low-ranked teams unsustainable. Defence is often put down to effort areas – I don’t necessarily believe it, but every coach tells you that – and on that, Canterbury aren’t too bad.

They make the most tackles and miss the second fewest, for example, and plenty of teams concede more points than the Dogs do.

As we do the post-mortem, however, the crucial aspect to discuss is not their defence but their attack. It doesn’t matter how many tackles you make if you only score ten points a game.

The Dogs’ attack stats are now the stuff of legend in terms of fecundity: 1.8 tries a game this year, 2.5 in the two years before, including the asterisk year for attacking stats in which every other club in the NRL added almost a try a game but the Dogs stayed static.

For the new man at the helm, this is the main issue to address. I refuse to believe that a tune can’t be found from the current playing group: they have a big, bustling forward group and they have strike players out wide, a decent enough halfback and an exceptional kicker.

It’s worth discussing the positive vibes chat that might take place in Canterbury Leagues in the coming days. Despite the try stats being poor, some key attacking metrics do point in the Dogs’ favour.

They are one of the better sides at generating second phase play – 10 offloads a game – and can get into field position better than about half of the league.

They kick long, which allows the side to travel up the field relatively successfully, and force repeat sets, theoretically generating pressure.

The problem is the lack of creativity when they get field position and ball. It’s the first thing on the new coach’s desk.

You will probably have seen me fall out with Barrett about this, because the Dogs are awful at getting the ball where it needs to be in attacking areas.

Flanagan remains the lowest placed regular halfback in the competition in terms of possessions, with just 35 per game: for context, the next worst is Brad Schnieder, on 36, then a chasm to Adam Clune on 43 (a whole set’s worth of extra ball).

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 20: Josh Jackson of the Bulldogs looks dejected as he speak to his team after a try during the round two NRL match between the Canterbury Bulldogs and the Brisbane Broncos at Accor Stadium, on March 20, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The Bulldogs do get the ball, and indeed, do get good ball, but all too often it is in the wrong hands. Those hands are Josh Jackson’s and Jeremy Marshall-King’s.

Jackson is a handbrake on the attack, because Barrett persisted under the illusion that Jacko could be a ball-playing lock when he absolutely, conclusively, undeniably cannot. He’s an honest pro, a good player, a hard-worker…but not a ball-playing lock.

Barrett insisted on a middle service-orientated attack, modelled on that of the Panthers system from which he came, with Jackson taking the role of Isaah Yeo. Politely, Jackson is not Yeo and it’s noticeable that the only game they have won since Round 1 was when Jackson was in Covid isolation.

The middle service system requires the lock to be able to move quickly, engage the line, interest defenders and then get the ball out to the halfback further out wide.

Jackson, to his credit, made a decent fist of it and did take the ball to the line, but defenders rarely believed that he was actually going to burst the line and therefore never had to plant their feet and commit to the shot. Jackson has had six tackle breaks all year. There was no accountability built up and tacklers could simply shift along to the next point of attack.

That’s only half the story, however. Marshall-King is also highly complicit in this problem. JMK runs far more than most hookers at a time when dummy half runs are generally down.

Teams that play a middle service often need to shift the ball quickly to the lock to make the system work, and unless you have an exceptional dummy half runner – Damien Cook, for example – then you really can’t afford to waste time dallying.

Api Koroisau is a good example: his dummy half runs stats have declined year-on-year at the Panthers as the attack has leaned more and more into the middle service tactic.

When a run is obviously on, he’ll still take it, but the threshold for when to run has been raised. That’s on the coach telling him not to do it – which makes it easy for the new coach at the Dogs to do the same.

JMK also has another fatal flaw for the Dogs’ attack. He is often found standing in the line when not at dummy half, as reflected by general play passes (GPP) stats that are in line with top end hookers like Cook, Harry Grant and Blayke Brailey.

Naturally, both Jackson and Marshall-King are not as good at playing halfback as the actual halfback is, but they are stealing his touches repeatedly. Again, this is something that the new coach can immediately fix.

It was my presumption previously that the more that Flanagan played, the greater confidence he would have and the more authority he would show in clearing JMK and other forwards – the Dogs also regularly find Luke Thompson and Paul Vaughan stood in the line where they shouldn’t be – out of the way.

It’s clear that Barrett has been attempting to recreate Penrith’s style with the Bulldogs, but with entirely the wrong cattle. Instead, the new man would do well to model the new version of the team of Parramatta.

Parra have been able to use ball-playing forwards, but they use Junior Paulo, Nathan Brown and Ryan Matterson in the role. They stoke genuine fear through running, which creates opportunities when the ball is shifted close to the line.

They also dominate through offloads. The Eels have the most in the league, earned because they have relatively top-heavy forwards who can take the contact, bounce it and then get the ball away.

The Dogs have this too, in spades. Tevita Pangai jnr is the best offloader in the game, by a distance, and is utterly wasted in the current system. Max King is also fourth in the NRL for offloads per game.

I can see a world where a pack featuring TPJ, Paul Vaughan, Luke Thompson, Max King and a repurposed, defence-first Jackson can win contest, generate second phase and get the ball to Matt Burton or Jake Averillo in a position where they can actually run.

What Parramatta also do is keep the pedal to the floor the entire game. They regularly pick an all-forward bench, allowing them to maintain intensity across the 80 minutes.

If you’ve picked that pack as suggested above, there is going to be times when you have to box clever with interchanges to ensure that nobody is burned out.

I’m not sure that Ava Seumanufagai, for example, is any worse than Makahesi Makatoa or Oregon Kaufusi on the Eels’ bench, and the likes of Jackson Topine, Joe Stimson, Chris Patolo and Corey Waddell could certainly do a focused role from the bench.

When Jack Hetherington and Raymond Faitala-Mariner return, there is certainly the begins of a big, bruising, 80-minute Bulldogs forward group.

When I saw their trial with Cronulla back in February – the one where TPJ spent the first half trying to get himself sent off – I wrote a note that the Dogs appeared to be attempting to play in such a way.

‘All the dickhead, all the time’ was what I wrote, and I meant it in the best possible way. Intimidating, big, intense. Then they decided that their big men were ball players.

There’s one key thing that a new man will have in his favour. The Dogs are due a severe regression to the mean.

One of the key aspects of my role as a late period Barrett believer was that the draw had been very, very harsh on the Dogs early on, and that lessons learned in that period would filter through and see them beat lesser sides when they came.

That was what prompted me to stick my hard earned on them against the Roosters: I’d seen 20 minutes against Penrith, then 30 against Souths, 40 against the Broncos and figured that there was trajectory there.

The manner of the defeat to Newcastle, and last week’s at Canberra, put paid to that notion a little bit. It was as if nothing had been learned at all.

That said, the ‘new manager bounce’ phenomenon in soccer could well strike here. If the Bulldogs abandon the worst aspects of their attacking plan, and whoever the new coach is, they surely will try something else, then they might get some friendly fixtures to help them out.

The Tigers on Friday at Leichhardt is one – it’s near pick’em with the bookies – and the Dragons at Belmore on a Sunday afternoon, which is about as partisan as it gets.

They also get the Panthers in Origin mode, a showpiece Queen’s Birthday clash with the Eels and then the Tigers again. For a team that won just three games all year in 2022, the potential to jag a few is certainly there.

The bar has been set very, very low. I certainly don’t believe that the Dogs’ roster is the 16th worst in the NRL, but they might have had the 16th best coach. Now that that issue is no longer there, there are steps that can be taken that should give fans hope.

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