Daniel Nichols continues to look back on the NRL season. Today it’s the Canterbury Bulldogs turn!
Fan Prediction: Top 4
Where It Went Wrong: The Bulldogs suffered their biggest blow of the season before it even kicked off when superstar fullback and Daly M medalist Ben Barba was stood down for disciplinary reasons. At the time we were led to believe Barba was suffering personal problems, and although the full truth of the circumstances may never be known, Barba was often a shell of his 2012 self this season. Barba’s attacking flair was sorely missed and there were strong rumours of discontent within the squad surrounding the behaviour of their superstar number 1. When on the field Barba was not anywhere as dangerous as Dog’s fans would have hoped. Whether distracted or weighed down by expectation, Barba’s performances were not where he, or the club would want them to be, and ultimately he was released to the Broncos for 2014 to hopefully get his career, and life, back on track.
Superstar front rower James Graham was absent for the first few rounds of the Bulldogs 2013 and unfortunately for Dog’s fans, his absence had a drastic effect on the squad. Without his go forward, aggressive defence and ball playing skills the Dogs lost one of their top weapons. Barba aside, the Dog’s greatest asset in 2012 was their front row combination of Tolman, Kasiano and Graham. Graham’s moment of madness in the grand final and Kasiano’s injury concerns cost the Dogs dearly as they struggled in the early rounds. When Graham did return, the Dogs looked like a different side. Frank Pritchard also struggled for match fitness in the early rounds, robbing the Dogs of yet another of their stars. 5 losses in their opening 6 fixtures was ultimately too poor of a start to rebound from.
Kris Keating, who directed the side around the park in 2012 with great success struggled to re find his form this season and found himself playing reserve grade before being released to play in the Super League. Trent Hodkinson, who replaced him in the halfback role had a solid season but lacked the creativity of the top line halves in the competition. Dogs fans would have expected far more from their big money recruit Tony Williams who although showing glimpses, did not live up to his price tag. It would be unfair to expect him to make the move to a new club and produce his best football straight away but a player who was amongst the first picked for Origin last season wasn’t even in the reckoning this time around.
Where It Went Right: Although the Dogs suffered a horror off season, they still managed to finish 6th. Sitting 1-5 after 6 rounds, experts were predicting the Dogs would miss the 8, but a late season run driven on by James Graham and Josh Reynolds especially, saw the Dogs ride momentum into the finals. Although they ran into a red hot Knights outfit, considering the horror start to the season, a top 8 finish may be seen as a big win this season. The late season fight is a testament to the belief within the club that no matter how bad the situation, there is enough talent and fight to come through it all. Fans would have been hoping to go one step further than in 2012 but the late season fight back and minimal disruptions to their squad will give great cause for excitement in 2014.
All eyes were on Josh Reynolds to see how he would back up his brilliant 2012. Selection in the NSW Origin side shows just how highly regarded Reynolds is within the game. He was brilliant again all year for the Bulldogs contributing 14 try assist, 9 tries and an amazing 33 offloads. The fact that a ? lead the offload count in a side that contains Kasiano, Pritchard and Williams is almost unheard on. Reynolds remains an absolutely key figure for the future of the blue and whites. Just who will partner him in the halves next year is a big question, however Hodkinson probably showed enough to have first crack at the number 7. Sam Perrett and Josh Morris look locked in a 2 way battle for the fullback spot, but both seemed to set up decent combinations with Reynolds especially, which after a full offseason together, could lead to plenty of tries.
Although injuries and suspension to top class players are never welcome, the upside is younger players are able to gain NRL experience. David Klemmer has long been spoken of as a future monster for the club and his 4 games early in the season will provide him with the confidence for a big off season. Dale Finucane established himself firmly as a member of the pack, playing 25 games, mainly from the bench. Younger Tim Lafai certainly made the most of his opportunities and looks like he’ll move into the centres or to the wing when Morris or Perrett move to fullback next year. Josh Jackson and Mitch Brown both played many more games than would have either would have expected and filled in admirably.
Verdict: Before the Ben Barba drama become common knowledge, many, monstasport included, had the Dogs finishing in the top few. The unrest caused by Barba’s off field indiscretions was far reaching and his presence seemed to do more harm than good. Barba aside, there were big improvements across the board for the Dogs. Jackson and Finucane proved themselves to be genuine first graders, as Mitch Brown and Tim Lafai put big pressure on the established outside backs. Josh Reynolds played Origin and is likely to feature again in the selection next year. Josh Morris and Sam Perrett both filled in admirably at fullback and will be in a 2 way shoot out next season for the full time spot, whilst Tony Williams showed signs that he may be able to recover his best form. 2012’s 6th spot would have been seen as a huge failure if not for the off field turmoil suffered by the club, but all things considered, 6th spot may not have been too bad after all.
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