Canterbury Bulldogs Season Preview
It's probably a mark of the success expected at your club that you could be coming off a seventh-place finish having made two of the past five grand finals to find your team and coach is under pressure and fans are unhappy.
Yet that is the situation currently at Canterbury after their straight-sets exit from the 2016 finals race and with no big-name signings incoming, Des Hasler's men will need to find improvement from those already at the club.
Gains and losses
Gains: Zac Woolford (Raiders), Josh Cleeland (Sharks), Rhyse Martin (Townsville Blackhawks), Brenko Lee (Raiders), Tom Carr (Dragons), Francis Tualau (Storm), Richard Kennar (Storm), Asipeli Fine (Wests Tigers), Rod Griffin (Wests Tigers), Andy Saunders (Panthers)
Losses: Pat O'Hanlon (retirement), Sam Perrett (retirement), Curtis Rona (rugby union), Tim Browne (Panthers), Tony Williams (Sharks), Richard Coorey (released), Makahesi Makatoa (Raiders), Jarrod McInally (Queensland Intrust Super Cup), Graham Clark (released), Jake Kamire (released), Reubenn Rennie (released), Lamar Liolevave (released), Lloyd Perrett (Sea Eagles)
What we know
With a very similar roster to last season and the same coach, we have a pretty solid idea of how they are likely to play – a high-impact forward game through the middle based on the strength of their massive pack, with a focus on low-risk options in the attacking zone. We also know that wasn't quite good enough at the business end of the season so whether they look to develop some more flair earlier this season is another question. However first-choice fullback Will Hopoate and hooker Michael Lichaa are not the strongest creative players going round while both starting halves in Moses Mbye and Josh Reynolds are better suited as running five-eighths than controlling halfbacks.
Young winger Marcelo Montoya is an exciting finisher who will come into contention as the season wears on. Hooker Zac Woolford (son of Simon) has been brought over from Canberra and will pressure incumbent Michael Lichaa, while his fellow former Raider Lachlan Lewis (nephew of Wally) is a former under-18s Maroons playmaker. Playmaker Josh Cleeland has joined from Cronulla after winning an Intrust Super Premiership with the exciting Ipswich Jets in 2015. Former Penrith NYC and NSW Cup premiership-winner and Junior Kangaroo, prop Andy Saunders, will be pressing for a top grade debut as well.
In the forwards it's great with plenty of big, mobile bodies for Hasler to call on in the front and back row. The likes of Richie Kennar, Tyrone Phillips, Reimis Smith and Montoya ensure depth in the backs. But the playmaking stocks look dangerously skinny even barring injuries.
Skipper James Graham ($541,000) is a perennially reliable player and as an Englishman is unaffected by Origin. Fellow prop Aiden Tolman ($451,000) is also reliable while David Klemmer ($426,000) could hit new heights after his switch to lock.
A good pack, a good coach and a good system should be enough to see the Dogs competitive in most games but a lack of point-scoring creativity – combined with probable improvement in many of last year's mid-low tier sides – could just see the Dogs dip out of the finals zone. We'll tip them for ninth or 10th.