The Bulldogs could lay some long-lasting foundations in 2020
The Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs haven't played finals footy since 2016. They're among the favourites for the wooden spoon in 2020 with the finals-free streak looking likely to extend at least one more season.
Still trying to clean the dirty fingerprints Des Hasler left all over the squad, the Bulldogs roster is one of the worst on paper heading into Round 1 of the 2020 NRL season. The off-field issues Hasler created through poor salary cap management has kept the Dogs from significantly improving their roster over the summer.
Dean Pay is doing the best he can with what he has and is already making moves for the future despite not having a contract with the club beyond this season.
He has finished back-to-back seasons above expectations, ending Round 25 at 12th on the ladder in each. The culture of the club has changed around him. It was most evident in the effort level of the players last season in games they had no right being competitive in.
With cap space finally clearing for Pay to make some moves of his own in 2021, the Bulldogs swung for the fences and hit a homerun with Luke Thompson coming down from the Super League. He's an excellent talent and will walk into the NRL as one of the best props in the game.
Things are looking up for the family club.
Confidence is high and there is light at the end of the tunnel.
However, the Bulldogs still have 2020 to get through yet.
LEFT, RIGHT OR CENTER? Where Will NRL Teams Focus Their Attack in 2020?
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Being Sold A Lemon
False hope has filled the Bulldogs fanbase to start recent seasons.
February and March have been optimistic times for the Dogs. With a tendency to pick up wins late in the season when some teams have checked out and others are looking ahead to the finals, many assume that form will carry through to the following year.
The Bulldogs won their last three games of the 2017 season before winning just two of their first nine in 2018. Finishing that 2018 season winning four of their last six games, 2019 also started with just two wins in their first nine games. Once again, the Bulldogs finished strong in 2019 winning four of their last five games.
So, what can we expect from the Bulldogs early in 2020?
More of the same, unfortunately.
Squeezing Points In 2020
The Bulldogs punched above their weight in 2019. Eight of their 14 losses came by single digits. They often hung in there for three-quarters of a game before their defence cracked under the pressure of propping up the worst attack in the competition (13.6 points per game).
There isn't a lot to suggest the Bulldogs attack will improve much further in 2020 either.
Running for 1,582 metres per game last season, the Bulldogs ranked 8th in the NRL in yardage across 2019.
Jayden Okunbor's 173.6 metres (9th highest average in the NRL) and Will Hopoate's 154.6 metres (21st) got Canterbury's sets started before Aidan Tolman's 132.8 metres (43rd) and Dylan Napa's 130.9 (49th) came in behind them to roll up the field. Getting into try-scoring areas of the field isn't a problem for the Bulldogs. It's their conversion rate inside the opposition 20-metre line that had them rank 16th in attack.
Despite sitting 9th in tackles inside the opposition 20-metre line per game with 27.2, the Bulldogs scored just 0.5 points per tackle. Only the Panthers and their 0.48 points per tackle rated worse.
The Bulldogs' low-risk style of play which looks to complete sets and wear down the opposition lacks creativity.
Kieran Foran started to provide a spark in between injury layoffs last season. While not quite getting to the level that once had him as one of the best five-eighths in the competition, Foran looked more like his old self. His fearlessness in taking on the line resulted in 10 try assists in 14 games. He played well enough in spurts to earn a recall to the Kiwis squad where he subsequently injured his shoulder, keeping him off the field until at least Round 15.
With the improving international unavailable for much of the season, the Bulldogs are relying on Jack Cogger and Lachlan Lewis to manufacture points. Both serviceable in their own right, pairing them together doesn't promote confidence for a high-scoring attack.
Cogger managed just three try assists in 17 games last season and Lewis didn't produce many more with five from 15 games. Comparatively, Tyrone Roberts - whose Titans played with the 15th-ranked attack in the NRL (15.4 points per game) - handed out 11 try assists in 15 games. Luke Brooks and Benji Marshall spearheaded a Tigers attack scoring 19.8 points per game - bang average. However, the Wests halves finished the season with 33 try assists between them.
The Bulldogs are lagging in the playmaking department, but while unproven as creators, Cogger and Lewis have some exciting talent out wide to work with.
Nick Meaney is growing into his role on the wing while Okunbor provides strong starts to sets out of their own end as well as an attractive cross-field kick target under the new rules. The perennially underrated Hopoate can slot anywhere in the backline with the developing Remis Smith also a reliable option in the centres. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak will benefit from the settled preseason at his new club too.
Watene-Zelezniak, in particular, impressed towards the backend of 2019 and added some bite to the Bulldogs attack from fullback.
But as encouraging as the outside back list is, Lewis, Cogger, and possibly Brandon Wakeham, have a lot of work to do in creating try-scoring opportunities if the Bulldogs attack is to be of Top 8 quality.
Planting Seeds For The Future
Despite the prospects of another season being let down by a weak attack, all hope is not lost for the future.
Watene-Zelezniak, Joe Stimson and Corey Harawira-Naera are all locked in until 2022 while Josh Jackson has extended through to the end of 2023.
That's it for guaranteed long-term money.
The Bulldogs can retain cap space for the future while also carefully selecting which players currently at the club they wish to keep.
With 11 players off-contract at the end of 2020, the salary cap issues that have plagued the Bulldogs in recent years will subside after this season. They'll finally be able to decorate their new-build with luxuries.
There is a healthy collection of regular first-grade talent all playing for extensions starting in 2022, too. Lewis, Smith, Okunbor, Hopoate, Dylan Napa, Jeremy Marshall-King, Ofahiki Ogden and Renouf To'omaga are all able to open negotiations with the club in November.
Signing Thompson from the Super League is an excellent start, but he's not going to be the last signing the Bulldogs make before Round 1 in 2021.
In the meantime, the 2020 roster needs to give the fresh and remaining faces a platform to thrive on from day one next season.
The Bulldogs are again part of the wooden spoon conversation. But after finishing 12th in back-to-back years, another season in the same position could carry plenty of positives. Not every 12th-placed finish is created equally. This squad won't be measured on wins and losses. Instead, we will be looking at the developing combinations, growing potential of young players, and Pay's performance in the coaches box when assessing their fortunes at the end of August.
While the Bulldogs look set for another challenging season which will more than likely be explained away as a rebuilding year, 2020 can lay some long-lasting foundations. The optimism they've carried into these last three seasons may actually be warranted in 12 months if they can build with the future in mind, and avoid the issues that have rendered them irrelevant for too long.
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