Last season’s beaten NRL Grand Finalists the Canterbury Bulldogs came into the 2013 season with high expectations. It is now year two of the Des Hasler era and along with their recruitment of Tony Williams and progress of their young players, it seemed like 2013 would be a year to give the title a real shake.
We knew they would be without James Graham for the first couple of months after he took the team mascot too seriously and bit Billy Slater in the Grand Final, but then came the injuries and the Ben Barba saga to throw a spanner in the works.
Despite those issues, most thought the Doggies would still be solid and hold the fort until all their names were back. However, after a 1-4 start to the season, including an uninspiring performance last Friday against Manly, we have to wonder if or when they will re-find their mojo.
Ben Barba ended up only missing three games and was back in time for the big match against the Rabbitohs in round 4. He went ok in that match given the circumstances and I thought the Bulldogs overall were good in a losing effort against a top opponent. But they followed that up with the Manly performance, where Barba looked like he had little interest in being there and certainly didn’t seem in a position to contribute positively to his team.
Speaking of having little interest and not contributing positively, Tony Williams has been less T-Rex and more Barney the Dinosaur since moving from Brookvale to Belmore. I don’t know if it is a fitness issue or a motivation issue, but he has been not only a bust in terms of the money he is being paid, but he is actually worse for the Bulldogs on the field than if he were not playing at all.
His defence is mediocre; he is not running hard and worst of all he doesn’t even stand correctly in the attacking line so he can receive the ball. Last year at Manly he would hit the ball at pace and put the defensive line on the back foot; this year he is standing in front of his teammates so any pass to him would be a deliberate forward pass penalty.
Right now I would imagine he is zero chance of playing in the upcoming Test match or for NSW in State of Origin and it would take a massive turnaround to get him his Blues jersey back. But for the Bulldogs to get back to contending for a title, turning Williams back into the T-Rex will be crucial.
With Inu and Graham both still a few weeks away from returning from suspension and Kasiano still not ready to go, the Bulldogs have a tough few weeks ahead of them. Being 1-4 is a salvageable position if it is turned around relatively quickly. They have been slow starters in the past and managed to contend, however the elastic band only stretches so far before it snaps.
What is very unlucky for the Bulldogs is that in a season where they were going to be under the pump with players out to start the season, they also managed to have the most difficult draw imaginable. In the first five rounds of the season, they played the four teams that finished directly below them in positions 2-5 on the ladder last season. The only other team they played was Parramatta and that of course is their lone victory.
The Storm, Rabbitohs and Sea Eagles have been the benchmark teams once again this year and whilst the Cowboys have not been great either, they played well enough in Round 1 and got the points. When you combine the missing players with the quality of their opposition, the Bulldogs have been up against it from Round 1.
That brings us to Round 6. This Friday night the Bulldogs travel to Allianz Stadium to take on the Sydney Roosters. The Roosters had been looking fantastic and with an impenetrable defence until their second half collapse in Canberra last weekend. Now both teams will be desperate for the victory.
With a logjam in the middle of the table, the difference between the Roosters going 4-2 or 3-3 at the Anzac Test week off is massive. Had they held on against the Raiders, there might have been less urgency to the match for the Tri-Colours.
For the Bulldogs, this match is everything. Not only is it the difference between being 2-4 or 1-5, it is Sonny Bill Williams’ first match against his old side and the Doggies’ fans will be calling for blood. When Willie Mason faced a similar (if not quite as hostile as this Friday will be) reaction in his first match for the Roosters against the Bulldogs, he delivered probably his best performance for the Roosters in a one sided affair. If Sonny Bill Williams’ does the same then we might be seeing the Bulldogs digging a hole from which it will be very difficult to get out.
Either way, we are going to learn a lot about both teams on Friday night. The Roosters are clearly good, but how good? At this point I think they are a playoff team without being a real threat to the Premiership. They will destroy bad teams like they did to Parramatta, but good teams won’t back down against them. If the Roosters can start beating the good teams, then maybe we will have a real contender on our hands.
The Bulldogs at their best are clearly contenders. But by the time they reach their best, if they ever get there at all, it might be too late. Not every team can go on the run Parramatta went on in 2009 to the Grand Final and the Bulldogs season needs to start on Friday night before the Test Match and City vs. Country weekend.
Come Friday night their bite needs to be as big as their bark once again.