NRL 2018 OUTLOOK: BULLDOGS

Will Evans’ series of 2018 NRL club previews appeared in the February/March issue of Rugby League Review magazine.

After reaching grand finals in 2012 and ’14, the Bulldogs stagnated rapidly and high-profile coach Des Hasler’s six-season tenure came to an abrupt end late last year – the culmination of a season of off-field ructions at the club.

Canterbury has gone back to the tradition of appointing ‘one of their own’ as coach (Hasler was the first coach that hadn’t played for the Bulldogs since Warren Ryan in the mid-1980s), bringing former premiership-winning enforcer Dean Pay back into the fold.

First priority for Pay will be breaking the attacking shackles after the Bulldogs scored an NRL-low 15 points per game in finishing 11th last season. The line-up will have a distinctly different look, too, with celebrated clubmen James Graham, Josh Reynolds and Sam Kasiano joining rival clubs, replaced by Test stars Aaron Woods and Kieran Foran, and young Raiders forward Clay Priest.

The surprise late pick-up of giant centre/winger Moses Suli from Wests Tigers could also provide some much-needed strike out wide if the Bulldogs can unlock the teenager’s potential, though attitude problems are already derailing the start of his stint at Belmore.

Pay has also indicated he will attempt to convert half Moses Mbye into a fullback in one of 2018’s most intriguing positional storylines, despite having no obvious halves replacement. But in David Klemmer, new captain Josh Jackson, Will Hopoate, Aiden Tolman, Foran, Woods and the Morris twins, the rookie mentor has the bones of an excellent side.

The bitter battles at board level could have a potentially destabilising influence on the football team, but they look to be settled now and if team are left to do their thing on the field the Bulldogs could be one of 2018’s big improvers.

BEST RECRUIT: Kieran Foran has been battered from pillar to post by injuries and off-field issues over the past couple of seasons, but his form on the paddock for Parramatta and the Warriors has predominantly been of the highest order despite the setbacks. Tough, direct and boasting tremendous vision, Foran is the ideal linchpin for the Bulldogs after several seasons of the talented-but-erratic Reynolds-Mbye combination.

STRENGTH: Vast experience throughout the team sheet, a rugged pack and a great defensive attitude (ranked seventh in the NRL in 2017), while a lack of external expectation makes for a nice change.

WEAKNESS: Reinvigorating the competition’s most toothless attack won’t happen overnight – particularly with major question marks over the fullback spot, Foran’s halves partner and, to a lesser extent, their hooker – and depth across the board shapes as a problem when injuries and the rep drain strike.

KEY MAN: With 15 Tests for Australia and nine Origins for NSW to his name, David Klemmer has quickly made the leap from explosive tyro to forward leader at Canterbury. The 24-year-old was outstanding at club and rep level throughout 2017 – despite the Bulldogs’ struggles – and he will be looking to take his game to the next level with James Graham gone.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Fa’amanu Brown has repeatedly proved his class as a utility for Cronulla since debuting in 2014, but a shift to Canterbury will provide the Christchurch junior with his first real opportunity to cement a first-grade spot. A contender for a halves spot with Matt Frawley and Josh Cleeland, the gutsy and skilful Brown shapes as an ideal No.14 option with his ability to excel at dummy-half.

YOUNG GUN: Rookie winger Marcelo Montoya’s emergence was a rare bright spot in a dismal year for the Bulldogs. The 21-year-old scored a team-high 12 tries from 19 appearances and went on to feature on the flank in Fiji’s charge to the World Cup semis. Montoya should benefit from being on the end of a backline that has license to let the ball sing in 2018, though Moses Suli’s arrival puts his wing spot under pressure.

UNDER PRESSURE: Mose Mbye’s looming shift to fullback is a hefty gamble from Dean Pay and a genuine crossroads moment in the livewire Queenslander’s career. Mbye should relish the extra space to run and freedom to roam on attack, but if the 24-year-old fails to nail down the No.1 jumper, he may slip out of the Bulldogs’ 17 altogether.

NEEDS TO IMPROVE: Hooker Michael Lichaa seemed destined for the scrapheap as a difficult season finally resulted in his benching by Hasler in Round 18. The 24-year-old finished the NRL season strongly, however, and starred for Lebanon at the World Cup to provide a timely reminder of his potential. Pay’s arrival as coach may have saved his spot at the club – now it’s up to Lichaa to prove he deserved to keep a place on the Bulldogs’ roster.

THE COACH: Pay gets his chance as an NRL head coach and a long apprenticeship as an assistant first-grade coach and Under-20s mentor at Catalans, Melbourne, Parramatta and Canberra, while he enjoyed outstanding success in charge of the NSW Under-20s Origin team. The ex-Test forward will be given time to prove his coaching chops – but the Bulldogs expect results.

LAST FIVE COACHES:
Des Hasler (2012-2017)
Jim Dymock (2011)
Kevin Moore (2009-11)
Steve Folkes (1998-2008)
Chris Anderson (1990-97)

TAB PREMIERSHIP ODDS: $31.00

PREDICTED FINISH: 14th

GAINS: Jarred Anderson (Sydney Roosters), Fa’amanu Brown (Cronulla Sharks), Mason Cerruto (Penrith Panthers), Kieran Foran (New Zealand Warriors), Jeremy Marshall-King (Wests Tigers), Ofahiki Ogden (New Zealand Warriors), Clay Priest (Canberra Raiders), Aaron Woods (Wests Tigers)

LOSSES: Brad Abbey (Canberra Raiders), Craig Garvey (Canberra Raiders), James Graham (St George Illawarra Dragons), Sam Kasiano (Melbourne Storm), Adam Keighran (Penrith Panthers), Richard Kennar (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Brenko Lee (Gold Coast Titans), Tyrone Phillips (Penrith Panthers), Josh Reynolds (Wests Tigers)

BEST LINE-UP IN 2018

1 Moses Mbye
2 Brett Morris
3 Will Hopoate
4 Josh Morris
5 Marcelo Montoya
6 Kieran Foran
7 Matt Frawley
8 Aaron Woods
9 Michael Lichaa
10 Aiden Tolman
11 Josh Jackson
12 Adam Elliott
13 David Klemmer

14 Fa’amanu Brown
15 Raymond Faitala-Mariner
16 Danny Fualalo
17 Clay Priest

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