Back again with what is part 2 of our NRL previews and we shall today cast our eye over the Canterbury Bulldogs ahead of the 2016 season. Not a great deal of player turnover as their overall side remains largely the same, but that could be a good thing, as the players all know each other and are familiar with the styles of play each player has. Alternatively, it could be a bad thing, especially if there’s some key injuries, with the depth not overly strong. How will that all play out for the Dogs? Time will tell.
Any team coached by Des Hasler is going to work hard, play hard and get results that are needed but for any fan from the outside looking in who is interested in rugby league, there are some legitimate concerns and questions among the Bulldogs roster that could define their season. Just how well can new halves pairing Moses Mbye and Josh Reynolds play together? Are they the right halves pairing? How can Will Hopoate fit into the side and can he recapture his form from his Manly days? Is he the right fit? And finally, can the Bulldogs depth players step up and make their presence felt when called upon, or is that depth too skinny and not experience enough?
Let us start with Mbye and Reynolds, the new halves pairing. As individual players, both are talented in their own rights and versatile in the positions that they can play. Mbye was a talented youngster coming through the Dogs ranks and waited for opportunity, before it came in a big way for him throughout the 2015 season.
As for Reynolds, he has shown that he can perform at an elite level – making the NSW Origin team as a result of his good club form – but his temperament and at times ill-fated decisions still plague his own game and his team.
With neither Mbye or Reynolds regarded as natural creative halves by nature, the question for them and one that many Dogs fans will be hopeful eventuates, is can they guide the Bulldogs to some sort of success? The loss of Trent Hodkinson to the Newcastle Knights puts real pressure on the young duo, who may be expected to form early on. Pressure like that is something some players thrive in but for other players, it dwells in the back of the mind every time they take the field and can get the best of them at times.
This young halves duo has the world at their feet but they have a big task ahead of them to take charge, make the most of opportunity and to provide stability and consistency.
Moving on to Will Hopoate, and his return to the NRL following his Mormon mission was well publicised, as was his play on the field. It was a topsy-turvy ride for the former NSW representative player, who showed glimpses of promise but failed to ultimately reach those previous heights upon his return. But that is expected, given most players who return from Mormon missions take time to re-adjust to the game that has often changed during their time away.
A gifted utility back, Hopoate’s time at the Eels ended in a rather sour fashion and it was the Bulldogs, in need of a centre after letting a couple of players go, who pounced. A new club may be what Hopoate needs and perhaps having re-adjusted to the game itself, he can produce better, more consistent performances. However, he does still need time to develop and find his feet if he is to truly re-establish himself once again and with many fans disappointed at having lost a player like Tim Lafai to sign Hopoate, he will have to impress the fans very quickly, just as much as the club themselves.
The final area that has is of concern to some, is the noticeable lack of recognised depth at the Dogs in several positions. From a forwards perspective, there are still young, capable players, who have tasted first-grade, though there are some that are yet to do so, as well as in other positions. In today’s day and age of rugby league, depth has never been more important as teams juggle injuries, suspension, Origin and other factors. When there is a relative lack of depth at certain times, it creates pressure on the team and the players especially, who are then expected to perform at an even higher level. Some teams can cope and you can virtually guarantee that any player that comes into the Dogs side – no matter how young they are – will have been conditioned and talked to by Des Hasler, but it does not make the side’s job any easier nor the player’s job any easier.
Ultimately, Dogs fans always have high hopes for their team’s chances every year, even if many opposition fans believe that the Dogs could be headed for a slide this season for a number of reasons. With a lot of teams significantly adding to their side with key additions in key positions and the Bulldogs not adding to the same extent, some rival fans believe that is the catalyst for a tough season ahead for the Dogs.
But as previously mentioned – and it is a fact worth noting – any side coached by Des Hasler is going to challenge hard, play hard and push teams all the way, given his stature as a coach in the game. His style is one that the players are seemingly drawn to and whilst they have largely the same contingent of players, there are still quality players there and it is up to them to provide the building blocks for the Bulldogs season and take their own games to new heights.
Best Buy: The pressure may be on Will Hopoate ahead of the 2016 season, but in terms of natural footballing talent, that cannot be denied. He may have had a tough 18 months as he re-adjusts to the game upon his return, but his signing is one that gives the Dogs some starch, experience and much needed versatility to their back-line. Determined to prove himself once more and emulate previous form and successes, Hopoate has worked hard to get himself in the right condition, the right shape and the right frame of mind to achieve that. Still a young player himself, he should make a rather smooth transition into the Dogs side and back-line, wherever that might be. His versatility still has many fans questioning the exact make-up of their back-line, with Des Hasler known as a coach who keeps his cards close to his chest. Where would you play him? Fullback or centre?
Most Promising Talent: Although he is not their junior as such, one player to keep a genuine eye on at the Bulldogs is youngster Brad Abbey. Joining from the New Zealand Warriors where there was a significant back-log in the back-line, there is the chance for opportunity at the Bulldogs. Whilst he may not start from Rd 1, the Origin period should provide a chance for him, particularly if both Morris brothers are selected. One of the form fullbacks in the Holden Cup last season, Abbey is a naturally gifted player, with a cool head, some quick feet and some good pace to boot. His consistency and performances had many Warriors fans raving about him and subsequently disappointed to lose him. What is the Warriors loss is the Bulldogs gain and if Abbey does get an opportunity, then there will be some fireworks and excitement when he plays.
2016 Gains: Brad Abbey (New Zealand Warriors, 2018), Graham Clark (2016), Craig Garvey (St George Illawarra Dragons, 2017), Kerrod Holland (Newcastle Knights, 2017), Will Hopoate (Parramatta Eels, 2017)
Our predicted line-up:
1. Brett Morris
2. Sam Perrett
3. Josh Morris
4. Will Hopoate
5. Curtis Rona
6. Josh Reynolds
7. Moses Mbye
8. Aiden Tolman
9. Michael Lichaa
10. James Graham (C)
11. Josh Jackson
12. Tony Williams
13. Greg Eastwood
14. Tim Browne
15. David Klemmer
16. Shaun Lane
17. Sam Kasiano
Coach: Des Hasler.