Ben Barba will have a big say in how far Canterbury go this year.
Photo: Getty Images
Canterbury will hold the NRL premiership trophy aloft in 2013 if their first season under Des Hasler is any indicator. The Bulldogs' rapid rise under the two-time premiership coach was one of the stories of the 2012 season. He took the team from outside the finals in 2011 to a minor premiership and a grand final appearance in his first season with an inherited playing roster.
It was a coaching performance that even Wayne Bennett or Craig Bellamy probably couldn't replicate if they started at new clubs. Without a star-studded halves combination to work with, Hasler chose to let his forwards do the ball-playing, causing serious headaches for defensive lines used to seeing teams run one or two passes out from the ruck on the first four plays.
The Bulldogs fell at the final hurdle to a brilliant Melbourne Storm outfit that was as hungry as ever in their first grand final since being stripped of their 2007 and 2009 premierships due to salary cap breaches. The Storm was the only team capable of shutting down the passing game of Canterbury's forwards which took them to within a whisker of the title. Melbourne handled the nerves of the occasion better than their Canterbury opponents – understandably so given the Storm were appearing in their fifth decider in seven years.
But by the time grand final day comes around in 2013, Melbourne's big three will be another year older (Billy Slater and Cameron Smith will be on the wrong side of 30), and the Storm hunger may have subsided following their 2012 triumph.
And it's not often a side that finishes in the grand final can add an Australian Test forward to their roster – but the Bulldogs have added Tony Williams. Admittedly, Williams' form in 2012 left a lot to be desired at Manly, but he reunites with Hasler at Canterbury in 2013 and no coach fulfils a player's potential better.
David Stagg is a big loss for the Bulldogs and will leave a hole in the defensive line but Hasler will have a plan in place to cover for him. Jonathan Wright and Bryson Goodwin are departures from the backs, but Goodwin didn't play much football in 2012 and Steve Turner will be back from injury in 2013 to fill the void left by Wright. In short, Canterbury has lost quantity but gained quality on the recruiting front.
There is a danger that Ben Barba won't be able to match his brilliant season that saw him take home the Dally M Medal as he'll now be a marked man, but if the Bulldogs do in fact qualify for the decider again in 2013, Barba, whose performance in the grand final was below par, will be better equipped for the occasion having had experience on the big day.
And the likes of five-eighth Josh Reynolds and prop Sam Kasiano, who both enjoyed breakthrough seasons, will benefit from having another full year of first grade under their belts. Canterbury will miss James Graham through suspension but their roster is strong enough to win games without him and have themselves in a solid position when he returns.
They say you have to lose a grand final before you win one, and there is every chance that will ring true for the 2012 runners-up. Hasler and his players will be seething after their grand final defeat, and will use it as the ultimate motivation to take out the 2013 title.
With a young and talented playing roster on the rise and perhaps the best coach in the game at their disposal, we're tipping Canterbury to do just that.
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