Bulldogs 2016 season review
Inconsistency was the word coach Des Hasler used to some up his team's season after they were knocked out in Week 1 of the finals and looking back, it's hard to argue.
With one of the best forward packs in the NRL, a fair share of firepower out wide, plus a great football department and resourcing, there was no reason the blue and whites couldn't have gone on a winning spree at some point to stamp their premiership credentials and book a top four finish.
But instead, every time they threatened to break out and become one of the competition's heavyweight sides, they slipped back into a mini slump.
A four-month absence to fullback Brett Morris meant Will Hopoate assumed the custodian's role and while he found the best form he'd shown since his breakout year under Hasler at Manly in 2011, the spine overall struggled to provide the same sort of clinical control shown by the more seasoned playmakers at clubs like Melbourne, North Queensland and Cronulla.
It would appear the off-season departure of controlling half Trent Hodkinson to Newcastle was a factor here and while he's a great prospect, young hooker Michael Lichaa has a long way to go to learn the sort of influence that Michael Ennis (a key plank of Canterbury's charge to the 2014 Grand Final) has on a team.
Where they excelled: Their dominance through the forwards. Three Canterbury big men ranked in the top eight of all NRL forwards for total run metres for the year by the time the club bowed out, with skipper James Graham the best of all forwards with 4,177 metres at 167 per game. Fellow bookend Aiden Tolman charged for 3,354 at 134 per game while a move to the No.13 jersey paid dividends for firebrand Dave Klemmer, whose 22 games netted 3,640 metres at 165 per game. They were often at their best when their biggest man, impact prop Sam Kasiano, was on the field, particularly in the shadows of half-time. His team-high 38 offloads provided plenty of spark and, despite the challenge of driving his lorry-sized frame through tight defensive lines (and his limited minutes), he racked up six line breaks and six tries – both the best of any Canterbury forward.
Where they struggled: Grinding out games and building pressure. Despite making the fourth-fewest errors and holding around 51 per cent of possession in their games across the season, they scored fewer points than any other top-eight side plus the Warriors to be the ninth best attacking side of 2016. Part of the problem was a lack of ability to build pressure through repeat sets. The Dogs forced just 29 repeat sets all year – barely better than one per game – to be 13th best in that category. Only the Tigers, Raiders and Knights fared worse (though in Canberra's case, the fact they scored more points than any other side suggests they didn't really need too many repeat sets to get over the line).
Missing in action: Other than the knee injury that prevented Brett Morris taking the field until just past the halfway point of the season, Canterbury actually had a good run with injuries. Hopoate filled in admirably, to the point Hasler was comfortable leaving Morris on the wing even after he had his match fitness back. And despite Hopoate's much-publicised decision not to play on Sundays for religious reasons he still played 21 of 25 possible games, though his absence in the elimination final against Penrith was accentuated by another injury to Morris.
Turning point: Tough one to call. A 36-0 hamming in Townsville in Round 20 was the club's biggest loss of the season but came in the middle of a run where they won seven games either side of that, so was arguably just a hiccup. Perhaps more crucial was a dour 20-10 loss to the Broncos at Suncorp in Round 24. With a chance to push for a top four spot the team instead lost three straight games – the second of those a loss that saw the Cowboys leapfrog them into the top four – and they eventually finished seventh before a fourth loss in the first week of the finals saw them meekly exit the 2016 competition.
Hold you head high: The aforementioned middle men, Graham, Tolman, Klemmer and Kasiano, were consistent in what they brought to the table. Right-edge back-rower Josh Jackson though was incredible throughout the season. Despite a huge workload through Origin (a campaign that saw him awarded the Brad Fittler Medal as the Blues' best in 2016) he kept aiming up for his club side as well. It was not unusual after some of the team's poorer losses for Jackson to still find his way into the NRL.com team of the week and his returns of 96 metres and 35 tackles per game don't begin to capture the value he added to the Canterbury side.
2017 crystal ball: Given that we're still not quite sure what to make of the 2016 Bulldogs, it's harder still to know what to expect from the 2017 version. We know they will still have one of the most intimidating forward packs in the NRL but they probably look short one seasoned playmaker somewhere in the 1-6-7-9 combination if they are to make a much bigger impact than they did this year. Still, with Des Hasler at the helm another finals berth seems almost inevitable.
Conclusion: Bulldogs fans will hope that with a full season together plus another pre-season – as well as Brett Morris hopefully fit for the whole year – the likes of Josh Reynolds, Moses Mbye and Michael Lichaa can find the type of polish to take advantage of the platforms laid by their big men in the middle. They have some potential future playmaking stars joining the roster – such as hooker Zac Woolford and half or five-eighth Josh Cleeland – but really, any major improvement will need to come from within.