Week 1: Promise in Perth

The 2018 NRL season is finally here and with it, the other side of what has been a very eventful offseason and beyond for the Bulldogs. Here are my thoughts on the loss to an unsurprisingly impressive Storm team, with an initial focus on that eventful period that lead the Bulldogs to Week 1.

‘Rebuilding’. There are few less desired adjectives to describe the state of a team in the sporting vernacular. Essentially, it means that success has been too rare for too long. That significant change is needed. And that the path to glory is going to hurt for a while before it gets better. However, when the winds of poor performance and uncertain futures collide, it’s often the only logical option left to ensure that a course correction is even possible.

For the Bulldogs, this convergence came about after another lacklustre season. 2017 culminated in an 11th place finish courtesy of a 10-14 record. This was their lowest since 2010 and their first time failing to make the finals since 2011. This mediocrity was headlined by an NRL-worst attack. 15 points per game (ranked last), 44 tries over 24 games (also last) and 78 Line-Breaks over that same span (you guessed it – last, though tied).

Being a franchise that prides itself on results, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Fans, players and stakeholders were fed up. Many within these groups felt change was not just necessary, but overdue. Enough was enough.

As far as they go, this rebuild was rather unconventional. Sometimes it takes some simple roster turnover, or a change of coaching, or some organisational shifting. Sometimes, it’s a combination. Rarely, it takes all of these things. Though it wasn’t planned to be a complete transformation, what came to fruition was all-encompassing. And even though it started at the very top relatively early in the 2017 season, only recently has the collateral damage of the rebuild finally settled.

Simply put, that camel had plenty of straws atop its back before it ultimately broke. Head Coach, Des Hasler, was ‘re-signed’ to a two-year extension on April 7, 2017. This move, supposed to be a ship-righting development, was not well received by many. 20 days later, the club failed to retain beloved yet flawed 5/8th Josh Reynolds, announcing he was moving on to the Tigers courtesy of a deal too rich for the Bulldogs to match. Woes persisted, both on and off-field, and former CEO Raelene Castle then announced she was to depart the club at season’s end. It is here that the rumblings of players, veterans included, being shopped around and facing uncertain futures intensified.

Then in September, team captain James Graham announced he too was leaving the club to join the Dragons from 2018 onwards, another blow to the club roster & leadership. Though blaming Graham’s departure on these issues would be naive, thinking they didn’t play a role would also be so.

Wins remained elusive, and the team eventually finished in 11th place, even after a 3-game win streak to finish the season. Those victories were merely moral, however, and Des Hasler was ultimately relieved of his Head Coaching position. Less than half a year after being questionably extended.

Within a single season, a marquee player, the team’s Captain, CEO and Head Coach were gone. Replacing such significant members of the franchise would be a tall task, further thrusting the franchise into full rebuild mode heading into the offseason. Change had arrived, bringing with it an indefinite hold on success. Yet the task would grow taller yet.

Fast forward through the rumours of players coming and going and the clubs own board became a battleground. In light of the disappointing season and its consequences, the incumbent board was to face the first true challenge for power in a long time. A challenge they would lose decisively. Ray Dib & co were soundly defeated in a verdict that spoke volumes to the frustration and dissatisfaction with the events of 2017, and the perceived need to turn this rebuild into a true overhaul.

All rebuilds, even those as significant as this one, do have another side though. Ex-Bulldog Dean Pay was hired as the new Head Coach after an impressive ascension through the coaching ranks. Earlier in 2017, key signings of the likes of Kieran Foran and Aaron Woods sparked the first glimmers of hope with regard to the makeup of the roster going forward, later proving even more important as they went from mere exciting signings to pillars of a new Bulldogs era.

Even the unfortunately farewelled Michael Lichaa was re-signed, supposedly relishing the opportunity to remain at the team without the rigidity of the Hasler approach in attack and in particular at the Hooker position.

A few further signings (and a prominent release), a full pre-season under a new regime and a couple of encouraging trial games later, here we are at the light concluding this first tunnel: Round 1, season 2018. The newly unveiled Optus Stadium in Perth, Western Australia would showcase the very first taste of life after Castle, Hasler, Graham, Reynolds and the previous board. Their first test? Reigning premiers, the Melbourne Storm.

Here are my ups and downs on the first display from the new-look Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs.

Ups

  1. Return of the spark: The long-running complaint of the Hasler-era Bulldogs was the stale, predictable style of attacking play they seemed incapable of moving on from. This of course lead to their aforementioned league-worst attacking rankings.
    The arrival of the likes of Foran, along with a fresh ethos courtesy of new Head Coach Dean Pay combined with decisions such as moving Moses Mbye to Fullback and Will Hopoate to Centre were all touted to herald a new dawn for the attacking identity of the team.

    This new identity was acutely obvious from the team’s first possession. Basic runs seemed more purposeful, set-pieces more urgent and precise, and the whole unit appearing more cohesive. Players were constantly in motion, passes were accurate and set pieces were well structured and executed.

    Simply put, there were more of these attacking factors in one first try-scoring movement (the last-tackle Try to Brett Morris in the first half) than almost the entirety of the attacking efforts under Des Hasler. The contrast was incredibly stark.

    Though mistakes were made and 18 points are by no means an avalanche, the early signs of the attacking potential of this team are very encouraging. Many more points were on offer, often the victim of a stray last pass, intercept or hesitant decision.

    The Bulldogs attack, perhaps their biggest question mark heading into the Dean Pay reign, has shown encouraging signs at this very early stage. This should delight team officials, players and fans alike and is something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

  2. Mbye’s new home: One of the more notable changes to the Bulldogs’ roster is the transition of Moses Mbye from Halfback to Fullback. Mbye played plenty of Fullback throughout his junior football career, and he seized the opportunity to return to the position in this game. Mbye’s first kick-return was explosive, making a clean Line-Break returning the ball 55 metres. The resulting field position was turned into the first points of the game a few tackles later in the set.

    He broke 4 tackles in total throughout the game, was positionally sound and threatened the defensive line with his speed and athleticism on multiple occasions.

    Mbye provided a dynamic element from Fullback not seen in many years. He even added a few kicks as a 3rd kicking option behind Foran and Frawley, including a massive torpedo bomb that Storm counterpart, Cameron Munster, had a very tough time handling. Though of course a small sample size, the early returns on his position switch suggest a bright future ahead.

  3. Foran steady: Kieran Foran’s Bulldogs debut was a solid one. He appeared to be in command of the revamped attack and did well to earn his first Try-Assist on the first Try of the game – throwing a deft, sudden short ball to a surging Raymond Faitala-Mariner.

    Obviously, connections with Lichaa, Frawley and Mbye are still early in development and thus things were and will continue to be a work in progress. However, he made mostly good decisions, kicked well and kept the attack organised and under control. If these things can feature consistently in Foran’s game, the attack should be in good shape going forward.

 

Downs

  1. Defensive woes: A long point of pride for the Bulldogs has been their tenacity and ability in defense. A big part of Dean Pay’s ethos is also predicated upon these values forged by club history. As such, it was disappointing to see the team concede 36 points.

    Credit where it is due of course – the Melbourne Storm are reigning champions and it’s impossible not to appreciate and respect how consistently great they perform year upon year regardless of who comes and goes. Their own roster has undergone changes, along with being without Bily Slater, yet they barely seemed to skip a beat.

    However, there were notable lapses in both structure and communication on the defensive side of the ball (particularly the right-hand side of the line). This must be nipped in the bud if the Bulldogs are to give themselves a chance in games this year. As was seen, good teams will take full advantages of such defensive mishaps.

    The effort was mostly there, but the execution simply wasn’t good enough. Time will tell if this will merely be a teething issue or a true problem under for Dean Pay.

  2. Kick chase: An extension of the above point was the seemingly disjointed nature of the team’s kick-chase ability. The old saying ‘a kick is only as good as it’s chase’ is proven true every time a kick, good or bad, is let down by missed tackles and/or a slow, staggered line chasing downfield. The result is a much better kick-return by the opposition than should have occurred, which puts the now defending team immediately on the back foot.

    Momentum can often swing games and lead to crucial moments. Surrendering such momentum through the poor execution of fundamentals simply shouldn’t occur. Attention to detail can make all the difference, and how Dean Pay handles this will be a crucial factor in the team’s aspirations of success.

  3. Kick-offs: Surely the windy conditions contributed to this, however almost every single Bulldogs kickoff was far too short and too low. This gifted the Storm with an easy start to every set of possession.

    There’s a pretty standard bar set for kickoff height, distance and time in the air, and Moses Mbye fell short in all 3 phases much too consistently.

  4. Completions: Though there were definitely some positive signs in the new and improved attacking game of the Bulldogs, it was clear they lacked polish.

    This was, of course, to be expected – new combinations are still taking shape and will develop over time, as will the familiarity with the new style of play.

    But a 68% completion rate is a surefire way to make games much harder than they need to be. Great teams like the Storm don’t need extra opportunities to win games, and this is what low completions afforded them.

Week 1 was an inconsistent performance, as is to be expected with new faces in key positions and a rookie Head Coach making his debut. There was a lot to like, but also a lot to work on.  Sure, the team may not win as much as the top teams in the league, but they likely won’t lose as many as most initially expected, either. At the very least, the Bulldogs should be a much more exciting and competitive team in 2018. And that’s all one can really ask for as they continue to rebuild.

Player of the game: Raymond Faitala-Mariner – RFM scored the first points of the Bulldogs season, being on the receiving end of a great short pass from Foran for the first points of the game. He ended up with 100m off just 9 runs and 5 broken tackles. Though it would be nice to see him get involved a bit more and increase that hit-up total, he was destructive at times and showed the ability to surge through the defensive line not seen at the Seoncd-Row position in blue and white since the days of Frank Pritchard.

Honourable mention:
Aaron Woods – after a slow start, Woods also put forth a strong performance in racking up 152 total metres. He was the only Forward in the game to surpass the 150m mark. A very solid club debut.

Key stat: 38, 824 – Sure, it was a double-header. But to get almost 40, 000 to the main game in Perth was pretty impressive. As was Optus Stadium, the brand new facility situated in Perth that may be the most impressive in the country. The case for expansion in Perth is quite compelling, and the crowd figure did well to add to that case – even if the post-Try light show was a little off-putting at times (on the telecast, anyway).

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