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The Roar



Bulldogs' bark is worse than their bite: Defence needs mending as Ciraldo gambles with star recruit in make-or-break year

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20th February, 2024
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If the Bulldogs didn’t sign Stephen Crichton to play fullback then why did they splash the cash to play him in a less important position?

Cameron Ciraldo is set to give former Rabbitohs utility Blake Taaffe first crack at the No.1 jersey in 2024 after naming Crichton in the centres for Friday’s trial against Cronulla at Belmore. 

Bulldogs fans have every right to be mystified.

Ciraldo pulled the wrong rein last year when he installed Hayze Perham at fullback to start the season before eventually switching the more dynamic Jake Averillo to the back. 

This time around he has a bona fide premiership-winning representative star in Crichton at his disposal but he is leaning towards a handy player who did a fine job in South Sydney’s run to the 2021 Grand Final but has been in and out of first grade ever since. 

Fullback has never been more important than in recent years when the role has morphed into a third playmaker who needs to strike combinations with each edge quartet in attack while also being reliable under the high ball, effective in defence (often up in the line in red-zone situations) and a strong carrier of the pill early in sets. 

Crichton can do these things at an elite level and he has the game-breaking touch of class which can turn Origin games or Grand Finals in the blink of an eye. 


If history is any guide, Ciraldo is locked into the line-up he will trot out against the Sharks to also be the one that takes the field in Round 1 when they kick off their campaign away to bitter rivals Parramatta. 

Last year in the corresponding second pre-season fixture, he kept the same side for their season opener apart from lock Luke Thompson who was injured at training.

That also suggests Drew Hutchison will partner Matt Burton in the halves after being named in the No.7 jersey ahead of ex-Titans playmaker Toby Sexton.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 15: Stephen Crichton looks on during the NRL Pre-season challenge match between Canterbury Bulldogs and Melbourne Storm at Belmore Sports Ground on February 15, 2024 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Bulldogs recruit Stephen Crichton. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

This is much less of a surprise but will still raise eyebrows. Hutchison has filled in well at the Roosters over the past few seasons but even when Sam Walker was out long term last year, other options were used ahead of him at halfback. 

Whether he has the game management skills that are needed to complement Burton remains to be seen. 

It has been well documented that the Bulldogs have undergone the most dramatic overhauls in recent years, possibly the biggest in premiership history, in that no player or coach from the 2021 squad is still on the books after general manager Phil Gould’s kennel clean-out. 


Ciraldo has the security of a contract which runs until the end of 2027 but the concern that comes with any coach who takes a team backwards in the first year of a rebuild.

After the late-season renaissance under interim coach Mick Potter they finished 12th in 2022 but dropped to 15th last season despite registering with the same 7-17 record.

For a coach who earned his reputation (and choice of unprecedented five-year offers for a rookie at the Tigers or Bulldogs) on defence, Canterbury’s tackle-shy tendencies last year were abysmal.

There seemed to be no cohesion, little commitment and definitely no bite.

They ended the year with 769 points put on them, which was 94 worse than the next-worst outfit, wooden spooners Wests Tigers.

NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 13: Bulldogs look on after a Knights try during the round 24 NRL match between Newcastle Knights and Canterbury Bulldogs at McDonald Jones Stadium on August 13, 2023 in Newcastle, Australia. (Photo by Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

That’s more than 32 points per game and the worst defensive record for the club since Canterbury’s horrendous 2008 campaign when they conceded 782 on the way to finishing last after Sonny Bill Williams’ controversial mid-season exit.


The only other team to fare worse defensively since then was the 2016 Newcastle side which won just one match all year while opponents racked up 800 points on them.

Canterbury’s putrid 2023 defence had them just a converted try away from being in the top 10 for the worst all time. They were historically bad as they missed more tackles (a whopping 41.2 per game) and ill disciplined in being one of the three most penalised teams in the NRL.

Ciraldo and his support staff were vocal late last season when the controversy erupted over wrestling punishment dished out to a young player for being late to training.

Excuses would no longer be tolerated, the Dogs needed to regain their mongrel edge and the oft-trotted out spiel about the club’s hard-nosed DNA was also given an airing.

“The reality is, we need to change behaviours … we’ll continue to find ways where we can change behaviours,” he said at the time of the incident. ”At different times we’ve wanted to put some standards in place and I feel like we have to do something about that.”

Bulldogs coach Cameron Ciraldo. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Ciraldo has talked the talk, now his team must show they are committed to turning this proud club around to avoid an eighth straight season of missing the finals. 


Of the many recruits they brought into the fold in the off-season, none of them are defensive liabilities but only utility Kurt Mann and back-up hooker Jake Turpin would be considered above-average defenders. 

Crichton, former Sharks duo Bronson Xerri and Connor Tracey, Taaffe, Hutchison, Panthers forward Jaeman Salmon, Warriors middle Josh Curran and ex-Dolphins prop Poasa Faamausili have all gained more of a reputation for their work with the ball than being defensive juggernauts. 

Reed Mahoney does the defensive work of two players, he can’t be expected to carry any more of the burden, particularly as it will reduce his already limited attacking impact.

After playing just nine matches in his first year at the club, Viliame Kikau is almost like another newcomer and he is also renowned for his ability to break the line rather than reinforce it.

Canterbury’s pack overall looks small. Max King and Faamausili are by no means garden gnomes but following Tevita Pangai jnr’s strange retirement for boxing (only to return in the Queensland Cup), the Dogs lack genuine size with a rotation of Curran, Mann, Salmon and Kurtis Morrin as their main middle-forward options.

(Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

There have been many highly touted assistant coaches in recent times who have not been able to make the leap when getting the main gig, especially when they have been second in command at a strong club before inheriting a struggling side.


Garth Brennan, Trent Barrett, Justin Holbrook, Dean Pay, Stephen Kearney, with Adam O’Brien avoiding joining them on the proverbial scrapheap last year when the Knights staged a late-season revival when Kalyn Ponga enjoyed a career-best purple patch.

It is still too early to determine whether Ciraldo will be the career coach that Gould and others have predicted but if the Bulldogs don’t muscle up in defence this year, his chances of seeing the end of his contract appear slim.

After all the money spent on star recruits and paying out underperforming players, changing the front office staff and spinning the revolving door in the boardroom, anything less than being on the fringe of the top eight for the Bulldogs in 2024 should be considered a failure.