Injuries and suspensions derailed the Bulldogs' 2015 season but a new year sees a clean slate for Des Hasler's men who are pumped up for the season and will be out to improve their semi-final finish last year without departed cult figures Trent Hodkinson and Frank Pritchard.
Gains and losses
Gains: Will Hopoate (Eels), Bradley Abbey (Warriors), Kerrod Holland (Knights), Craig Garvey (Dragons)
Losses: Trent Hodkinson (Knights), Tim Lafai (Dragons), Frank Pritchard (Hull FC), Damien Cook (Rabbitohs), Corey Thompson (Widnes Vikings)
What we know
On their day the Bulldogs squad is one of the best in the competition – their strongest 17 chockfull of amazing players. The squad includes nine internationals, with Tony Williams the only one not to represent his country in the past three seasons. With Josh Reynolds and Will Hopoate recent State of Origin representatives and Michael Lichaa and Aiden Tolman having played in the annual City v Country fixture, the Bulldogs certainly have the cattle to give the NRL Telstra Premiership a shake.
The success of any good team though comes down to the competence of their halves. It's why the combination of Reynolds and Moses Mbye is such a key unknown this season. Trent Hodkinson's season-ending wrist injury last year offered a glimpse into the Bulldogs' future and it wasn't pretty, largely because Mbye and Reynolds possess similar styles. The Bulldogs still managed to win their next two games with the duo at the helm before being eliminated by the Roosters in the finals, but hopefully one of Mbye or Reynolds have had an off-season focus of directing the team while leaving the other's instinctive spark intact.
Tyrone Phillips was one player who caught the eye at the Downer NRL Auckland Nines earlier in February. The one-time NRL player managed 76.8 metres per game (not bad for 18-minute games), scoring three tries overall. Others to keep a keen eye out for in particular include Jarrod McInally, Kerrod Holland and Adam Elliott.
The Bulldogs aren't lacking in depth when it comes to the majority of positions with blokes like Lloyd Perrett, Pat O'Hanlon and Chase Stanley all first grade-quality talent. These men won't necessarily crack Hasler's initial 17, but will prove handy once amongst the season proper. Of concern though is the lack of replacements in the halves and hooking role – forgetting for a second Hasler's knack of using Josh Jackson anywhere he pleases – with Matt Frawley, Dane Chisholm and former Dragon Craig Garvey doing their best to earn a start.
Tolman and skipper James Graham appear the safest bets if you're looking to draft a Bulldog into your NRL Fantasy squad, especially with reduced interchanges sure to maximise both prop's minutes. Tolman ($457,000) may be the priciest Bulldog in the game, but with a 2015 average of 51.16 points he's worth every penny.
Apart from his first season coaching with the Sea Eagles in 2004 Hasler has taken his team to the finals every year in his NRL coaching career. That's the past 11 seasons – a period that includes five grand final appearances and two premiership wins. Can he make it a dozen straight? Interest lies in how Hasler adapts to the NRL's shot clock and the reduction in interchanges this season, especially considering the number of big men at his disposal.
The bubble could very well burst on the Bulldogs this year. In terms of personnel very few things have changed but with Hodkinson gone the club may not be as prolific when capitalising on try-scoring opportunities. If injuries strike as badly as they did last season the club could very well be counting their losses early. In saying all of that you can never write off Hasler or the Bulldogs.