2021 was a season to forget for the Canterbury Bulldogs. A wooden spoon, inconsistency, and player issues but there is light at the end of the tunnel.
2022 promises to be a better season for many reasons; new recruits, a new targeted approach endorsed by the club, and resolve.
If the Bulldogs can take any positive out of the 2021 season, it is resolve and mental strength.
As other teams also get better, though, will that be enough to get them a top-eight berth, or is it all a work in progress?
The Burton Enigma
Perhaps the most valuable signing that the Bulldogs have made for 2022 is that of Matt Burton.
The early release from Penrith did not transpire but Bulldogs fans must be happy seeing the form that Burton has shown since coming into first-grade.
Whether at centre or five-eighth, there have been flashes of brilliance and the Bulldogs will want him to emulate that for them.
A naturally gifted player with a big left boot, Burton is expected to slot into the five-eighth role in 2022.
Of course, playing for a well-oiled machine that is the Penrith system and a Bulldogs side that has to, in many ways, find their feet in 2022, are two different things.
Burton, however, is a player that can buck the trend and take a bull by the horns if he needs to.
The Bulldogs will certainly hope he can do so, and the more interesting part will be who his halves partner is.
There are plenty of options at the club, several of which have had their fair share of inconsistencies.
Kyle Flanagan, Jake Averillo, Brandon Wakeham. There is perhaps no decision more important for Barrett in 2022 than this one.
How do you solve a problem like Tevita?
Tevita. Pangai. Junior. One of the most scintillatingly brilliant players we have in our game but at times, he can also be one of the most frustrating.
Blessed with prodigious talent that he has shown on many occasions, effort and discipline have always been the two major criticisms of his game.
As he moves to a club that will want to start on the right foot, the biggest challenge for Pangai Junior is to play for his teammates.
Bulldogs fans will be crying out for consistency from Pangai Junior knowing just how much untapped potential he still has.
A versatile forward, Pangai Junior can cover the front-row, the back-row and lock, and where he fits in under Barrett’s system will be interesting.
At his best, when he’s floating around the ruck and drifting with purpose, Pangai Junior can open the game up and coax extra defenders towards him.
That allows space to open up and importantly for the Bulldogs if you have players following him, waiting for that special offload, the breaks and eventually points can happen.
He, along with Burton, loom as two of their most influential signings in the modern era for the club.
Criticising Barrett; justified or unjustified?
Plenty has been said about Trent Barrett and his coaching at both the Bulldogs and his time at Manly.
The two were very different sides, though, but that has not stopped some criticism being levelled his way for team selections, tactics and the like.
It is the opinion of this author that much of the criticism has been unjustified.
Barrett was dealt a tough stick early on; a Bulldogs side that had resolve but not much more in terms of attack and defence.
Barrett has utilised all of his experience and nous to try and extract the very best from his team and there were some golden moments.
As harsh as it may sound, there are some players that never quite reach the standards or the heights expected of them.
Making the NRL is a tremendous achievement but not all players are going to win premierships, play 200+ games and become a mainstay.
And it is that slippery slope that Barrett has had to contend with; how do you get the best out of players that are not technically gifted? Those that may not have the strongest work ethics?
His new recruits certainly have that and they have premiership experience to prove it. They have come from winning teams and will provide a new standard for the rest to follow.
Canterbury Bulldogs Player to Watch
Every year, a club has a player that emerges that even the most staunch fans will admit they know little about but after a few weeks, they are a fan favourite.
For the Bulldogs, that player has been Bailey Biondi-Odo. You could say when he debuted in 2021 that he was a relative unknown.
Now, he is anything but, as Bulldogs fans expect him to be in the top seventeen every week, such is his talent.
His talent, coupled with his versatility, put him in good stead to earn a spot. Able to cover the halves and hooker, he has shown his talents in limited game time.
Good control around the ruck, defensively sound and smart game awareness, he did everything he could to show Barrett he can be a regular fixture.
With a full pre-season under his belt ahead of the 2022 season, Biondi-Odo could be one to watch at the Bulldogs.
2022 Canterbury Bulldogs gains and losses
Gains: Josh Addo-Carr (Melbourne Storm), Matt Burton (Penrith Panthers), Josh Cook (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Matthew Dufty (St George Illawarra Dragons), Brent Naden (Penrith Panthers), Tevita Pangai Junior (Brisbane Broncos), Paul Vaughan (St George Illawarra Dragons, Braidon Burns (South Sydney Rabbitohs), and Max King (Melbourne Storm).
Losses: Renouf Atoni (Sydney Roosters), Dean Britt (released), Brad Deitz (released), Adam Elliott (Canberra Raiders), Tyrone Harding (released), Watson Heleta (released), Will Hopoate (St Helens), Sione Katoa (released), Lachlan Lewis (released), Falakiko Manu (released), Nick Meaney (Melbourne Storm), Dylan Napa (Catalans Dragons), James Roumanos (released), Chris Smith (Penrith Panthers), and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak (New Zealand Warriors).
Our predicted 2022 Bulldogs line-up (at full strength)
1. Matt Dufty
2. Josh Addo-Carr
3. Brent Naden
4. Aaron Schoupp
5. Jayden Okunbor
6. Matt Burton
7. Jake Averillo
8. Luke Thompson
9. Bailey Biondi-Odo
10. Jack Hetherington
11. Raymond Faitala-Mariner
12. Tevita Pangai Junior
13. Josh Jackson (C)
14. Jeremy Marshall-King
15. Ava Seumanufagai
16. Paul Vaughan
17. Jackson Topine
Coach: Trent Barrett.