This article was first written and published for The Roar.
I tell you what, at this point in this season I would prefer to support the Canterbury Bulldogs than the Newcastle Knights or Penrith Panthers.
One of these teams is coming out each week and giving it everything they have, while the other two are either exceptionally disappointing or playing like they have given up.
While the Knights and Panthers were tipped by many to make the eight, they have been frustrating for the initial six rounds (particularly the Knights, whose coach’s days are numbered after their performance against the Gold Coast Titans on Sunday).
The Bulldogs, on the other hand, were widely tipped to finish with the wooden spoon.
Heading into this season, there was very little expectation around the Bulldogs and that’s fair, given what a horrific campaign they endured last year.
In 2018 the Bulldogs finished twelfth, with just eight wins.
But what was far more challenging for the squad and their new coach, Dean Pay, was the salary cap mess which engulfed the club that required them to shed a number of players heading into the 2018 and 2019 seasons like Josh Reynolds, James Graham, Aaron Woods and David Klemmer and meant that the club was heavily reliant on a group of young players largely untested at an NRL level like Jeremy Marshall-King, Lachlan Lewis, Chris Smith and Ofahiki Ogden.
While there was one big name signing heading into 2019, that being Dylan Napa, the remainder of the players signed by the club were smaller value acquisitions like Jack Cogger, Nick Meaney, Sauaso Sue, Corey Harawira-Naera and Christian Crichton.
2019 was painted as a rebuilding year for the club – a challenging concept for Bulldogs fans who are exceptionally proud and used to seeing their club successful and playing finals football.
But, despite the Bulldogs sitting in sixteenth spot on the ladder on just one win, they are a team that isn’t too far away from being decent (or at least slightly more decent than what their position on the ladder would suggest).
There have certainly been some blow-outs for this young team; most notably in Round 1 against the New Zealand Warriors where they lost 40-6 and Round 4 against the St George Illawarra Dragons where they lost 40-4.
But what has impressed me about the Bulldogs so far this year is that they have come close to beating two of the teams thought to be premiership contenders; losing to the Melbourne Storm 18-16 and to the South Sydney Rabbitohs on Good Friday 14-6.
They have taken it to both these teams even with significant injury concerns including to two of their marquee players in Keiran Foran and Dylan Napa.
I particularly enjoyed Lachlan Lewis’ performance against the Bunnies – he seemed to have his own personal vendetta against Sam Burgess and targeted him for the entire evening, and was clearly getting under Burgess’ skin.
So is there any hope for the team sitting last on the ladder at the moment?
I say yes.
Current Chairperson at the club Lynne Anderson is a talented, clever woman who genuinely loves the club. Together with CEO Andrew Hill, Lynne and her team are committed to turning the Bulldogs back into the ‘family club’ that they once were.
Additionally, while it may have seemed bizarre to re-sign coach Dean Pay leading into Round 3 of this year after two successive losses, the team has played better following some certainty.
It hardly seems fair either that Pay not be given more time given that he was brought in to coach at the start of last year and has had very little opportunity to build the squad he wants, and has been significantly hampered by the salary cap problems that engulfed the club last year.
The thing with this squad is that they just seem to be ten per cent off the mark. They are missing two or three strike players and these players, in my view would make a significant difference.
The first of the missing players is an experienced half.
As mentioned, it’s no help that their experienced half Foran will be out for most of the season, injured. But even then I’m not sure he is the answer. Foran’s best years are behind him. He is exceptionally injury prone and it will be a long road back to being the player he was at the Manly Sea Eagles all those years ago.
While Lewis shows some promise, it will take a while for him and Jack Cogger to combine and both are young and inexperienced.
The Bulldogs are also missing one or two explosive backs, the type that can create something out of nothing.
So far this season, the Bulldogs have scored 70 points leaving them with the worst attack in the competition. The team seems to have little trouble getting up the field but cannot convert any field position into points.
But, my prediction is that the Bulldogs are not the team that will finish with the wooden spoon. They seem to be playing with far too much courage for that to be the case.
And while courage doesn’t always win games, I would certainly rather have courage than the lack of effort we are seeing from some of the other underperforming teams in the competition right now.