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Sleeping giants awaken as Bulldogs and Dragons rise

For the loyal and long-suffering armies of Bulldogs and Dragons fans, patience has been more a prerequisite than a virtue during the past decade.

After a run of five straight finals appearances between 2012-16, the Bulldogs have failed to finish higher than 11th in the ensuing seven seasons, suffering the ignominy of collecting the wooden spoon in 2021.

The Dragons went to the second week of the play-offs in 2018 but have languished in 15th, 12th, 11th, 10th and 16th in the five arduous seasons that have followed.

When time was called on the 2023 regular season, the Bulldogs and Dragons had scraped together just 12 wins between them and were once again left to watch the September action from afar.

Statistics supplied by David Middleton from League Information Services show that Round 18, 2016 was the last time both clubs were inside the top eight beyond the halfway mark of the competition – the Dogs sitting fourth with an 11-6 record and the Red V eighth with an 8-8 record.

Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs Top Tries from June

With Des Hasler at the helm the Bulldogs would go on to finish seventh while the Dragons won just two of their last eight games and crashed to 11th on the ladder.

The pickings have been slim in the ensuing seven winters of discontent, but on the back of renewed defensive resolve and the attacking exploits of the likes of Stephen Crichton and Zac Lomax, there’s growing belief the tide is turning at both clubs.

The Bulldogs’ golden point victory over the Sharks in Round 17 has them sitting fifth with an 8-7 record while the Dragons are eighth after taking their ledger to 8-7 by downing the Dolphins.

St. George Illawarra Dragons Top Tries from June

First-year Dragons coach Shane Flanagan says the tough grind he put his players through away from the footy field is starting to pay dividends on it.

"Our high-performance staff know what sort of athlete I want, and to the players' credit they trained so hard for four months and a lot of them changed their body shape and the way they moved and they needed to do that because we were going to play a different style and defend in a different way and you need to move fast we are seeing benefit of how hard they worked," Flanagan told

"I know what the DNA [of a successful club] looks like in my own head from sides I’ve coached before, a defensive mindset, but there’s a different group of players here so I have to let them come up with it and grow into it.

"We’re getting better at trusting and believing in each other - you can talk about it a lot but we need to experience games and grow as a club and we are showing signs that we are starting to understand what our strengths and weaknesses are and what sort of team we are."

Burton is that guy!

After losing two of their first three games to open the season the Dragons have steadily found their groove under Flanagan, claiming the scalps of premiers Penrith in Round 13 as well as the Warriors and Sea Eagles.

With victories in three of their past four outings, they head into Sunday's game against the Roosters with high hopes of avenging a 60-18 loss on Anzac Day when the loss of Moses Suli in the first tackle of the match appeared to knock them off kilter.

"It's all based around winning games – if you win, the next week is a lot more enjoyable, and you can see the change in the mindset and attitude," Flanagan said.

"For someone like Ben Hunt, it started to get him down the last couple of years, he was playing rep footy and Origin and getting a feel for what it feels like to win and then coming back here and it wasn’t a good place to be.

Bulldogs v Warriors: Round 18

"There's no spring in your step when you’re losing. Ben had to try and lead and it wasn’t a good place to be but he has brought into it this year.

"It's a sign of the quality of the person he is and his attitude towards this club that he wanted to back up after Origin Two when he could take the soft option and say ‘I need a rest’.

"Straight away after Origin he is thinking about his club and that's a quality all his teammates appreciate and I think that has rubbed off on a few other players.

"As a coaching staff and playing group you can’t help but think about ‘if we win can continue to win more football games then we can play semi-finals’ and that would be a fair achievement for everyone involved in the club in year one.

"We embrace the expectations of our fans and the passion that they want the Dragons to win."

Across town at Belmore, Cameron Ciraldo is enjoying the fruits of his labour in his second season at the helm after 2023 ended with losses in 10 of their final 12 games.

Having tasted premiership success as an assistant coach to Ivan Cleary at the Panthers, Ciraldo arrived at the Bulldogs with a reputation as one of the game’s sharpest thinkers – a coach on the rise who could help return the club to former glories.

“Everyone is really aligned in our building and trying to get better every day but if you start looking at finals you can easily lose track of what you are doing right now,” Ciraldo told media after the Sharks game.

“We’re still a work in progress but the thing I’m most proud of is how we are defending at the moment, how we are turning up for each other and how we are never giving in and those are things that win you big games.

Captain Crichton leads Bulldogs to a win

“They all have a lot of confidence in what we are doing at the moment. They love coming to work every day and you see that come out under pressure.

“There’s a real energy about our team at the moment and Critta [Crichton] helps these guys embrace it.”

The energy levels are also up at Kogarah, where a stunning upset of premiers Penrith in Round 13 was followed with a 56-14 drubbing of Wests Tigers, with Lomax setting a new club record for most points in a match with 32.

Having tasted finals footy just once since joining the club from Brisbane in 2016, Hunt is convinced the Red V are on the right track heading into the final 10 rounds.

“There’s a real good vibe, a good energy around the place and everyone is enjoying themselves so it’s nice to be part of,” the skipper said after the win over the Tigers.

Sloan at his best

“It has been a tough couple of years and I’m just happy that the club can finally enjoy some good times.

“There’s a lot of players who have worked really hard for a long period of time and I’m glad to see them getting the joys as well.

“A lot has changed, Flanno has changed a lot of things off the field and it’s a very good environment to be around.

“You can definitely feel the excitement building inside the club and on the outside.”


The key men

The arrival of big game specialist Stephen Crichton has been huge for the Bulldogs. Put simply, Crichton is a winner, and Ciraldo’s decision to make him captain has proved a master stroke. “The man he has turned into is incredible, he is still only very young. His influence on our team is undeniable, we can’t measure it, the way he has been able to help teach them to win came out tonight,” Ciraldo said after a gutsy win over the Eels in Round 14. Such is his desire to lead the club back to the finals, Crichton happily fronted up 48 hours after Origin Two to help the Bulldogs down the Sharks. “You put the team before yourself, that’s what we are building here,” Crichton said after playing the full 84 minutes in the 15-14 win. “The heart that we’ve got within our players, it doesn’t matter how you feel, you go out there to win. Credit to our coaching staff for everything they’ve built into our mindset of going out there and doing our job.”

Zac Lomax tallies a Dragons record 32-points in win over Wests Tigers

After much angst about whether he should be playing centre or wing, Zac Lomax has taken to the No.2 jersey like he’s been wearing it all his life. Boasting 11 tries in 13 games, 48 tackle breaks, 179 run metres per game, a new club record for most points in a match and two of the great State of Origin tries, Lomax’s form has been a revelation for fans and vindication for his coach, who was adamant the gifted 24-year-old was a winger. “Zac has put all the noise and the publicity about him early on behind him,” Flanagan said after Lomax’s 32-point haul against Wests Tigers. “His move to the wing has been successful in my view and he has played Origin which has been his dream. It was our decision to move him but he’s the one that is putting in the effort. He hasn’t kicked stones, he has jumped into everything we’ve asked of him.”

The key stat

The Dogs conceded a whopping 32 points per game in 2023 and have produced a stunning turnaround to halve that to 16.7ppg this season. After giving up 26 to the Eels in Round 1 and 25 to the Sharks in Round 2, the Bulldogs have only conceded more than 20 points on three occasions since then, one of those coming in a 30-26 victory over the Roosters.

Bulldogs have numbers to halt the Sharks

Skipper Ben Hunt’s performances have long been the yardstick by which the Dragons are measured, and with his future sorted and his mind clear, the veteran playmaker is enjoying a stunning season. The 34-year-old has already come up with 21 try assists in 14 games, compared to 19 for the entire season in 2023. As a team the Dragons tallied 66 try assists to rank 13th in that category last year but already this season they have 51 try assists to sit sixth on that table.

The run home

The Bulldogs will fancy their chances on home turf against the Warriors before heading into a bye and then a Sunshine State double against the Cowboys and Broncos. In a quirk of the draw they will face the Warriors and Cowboys again before the season is out as well as the Dolphins in Bundaberg and Manly at Accor, where they have won their past six matches.

The Dragons’ next month will tell the tale as they confront the Roosters and Broncos before a bye and the Panthers and Storm after it. They then have three home games in a row against the Bulldogs, Titans and Sharks before finishing off with the Eels at CommBank and the Raiders at Netstrata Jubilee.

Roosters v Dragons: Round 18

The way it was… Round 8, 2016

Cameron Ciraldo was in his second year as head coach of Penrith’s NYC team having taken them to a premiership in 2015. The likes of Dylan Edwards, Braidon Burns, Soni Luke, Wayde Egan and Liam Martin were part of the 2016 team that again made it to the decider but lost to the Roosters. Ciraldo was named coach in the NYC Team of the Year in both 2015 and 2016.

Shane Flanagan’s Sharks were top of the table and on their way to an historic maiden premiership after 50 years in the competition. Current Dragon Jack Bird was a member of that premiership side as were Cowboys Val Holmes and Chad Townsend.

Andrew Fifita take a bow

James Graham was captaining a Bulldogs team that included Brett and Josh Morris, Josh Reynolds and Raymond Faitala-Mariner, who now plays for the Dragons.

The Paul McGregor-coached Dragons side included Jack de Belin, Euan Aitken, Bulldog Kurt Mann and Knights forward Tyson Frizell, who brings up career game No.250 this weekend.

Acknowledgement of Country

Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs respect and honour the Darug and Eora nations, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.