A lot was expected of the Bulldogs this season, perhaps too much, too soon.
With nine new faces in his squad, including a pair of premiership-winners and two who had represented their state and country, Trent Barrett looked to be building something special.
“They’ve always been a team that’s worked hard and even though they’ve lost their way the last couple of years it’s not been through lack of effort.”
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That talent was finally on its way to Belmore and after averaging a league-low 14.2 points per game in 2021, there was reason to believe that slowly but surely, it would show on the field.
Instead, even with marquee signings Matt Burton and Josh Addo-Carr, the Bulldogs went backwards.
So far backwards that they became the first team since South Queensland in 1996 (86 points) to fail to score 100 points in their first 10 games.
A 16-6 loss to Newcastle, which would end up being Barrett’s final game in charge, also saw Canterbury-Bankstown fail to score more than 16 points for a 10th time in a row.
A dejected Barrett was lost for answers and admitted as much in his post-game press conference, telling reporters that he was beginning to “sound like a broken record”.
No one expected the Bulldogs to become world beaters overnight but there still needed to be some early improvements to justify the off-season spending spree.
So, Barrett had to go. Now, within the space of a few months, the Bulldogs have emerged as the league’s unlikely entertainers under the watch of interim coach Mick Potter.
“It is must watch footy whenever the Bulldogs play,” Cooper Cronk said on Fox League after the Bulldogs’ 24-10 win over the Knights.
The numbers tell a fascinating story of how a simple change in coaching philosophy has sparked a stunning resurgence that few people saw coming so soon.
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THE SIMPLE SOLUTION THAT LET THE DOGS OUT
When asked what was the key to the Bulldogs’ turnaround, Burton had quite a straightforward response: “Playing more footy”.
It is a line that has been repeated by fellow playmakers Jake Averillo and Kyle Flanagan this week, who both told reporters of the way Potter has freed the “shackles” in attack.
“The shackles are off now and we are excited by how we are playing,” Flanagan said this week.
It shows too. Flanagan admitted earlier in the year there was a perception that the Bulldogs were a “structured team” but that had more to do with “the way we were being coached”.
Potter had a very different approach to Barrett, as Averillo explained.
“He’s given us all a lot of confidence,” Averillo said.
“He’s got a calm temperament and tells us to play footy, if we see something just do it. Don’t worry about the consequences and it’s really working for us. [It’s] just a change in mindset.
“I think we are playing every play on its merit. Before I think we were trying to get to a point for a play whereas now we’re playing eyes up and everyone’s pushing on the footy.”
The numbers back up that claim too. The Bulldogs still have the worst strike rate in the league in the opposition’s red zone.
But in spite of that, they have shot up in every other attacking category, scoring almost 16 more points and it is the way they are scoring that has changed.
Under Barrett, the Bulldogs scored two tries from inside their own half, ranking them 9th in the league. In the nine games since Potter has taken over, they have scored 11 and now place second, only behind Melbourne.
That speaks to a new-found confidence to throw the footy around, which is only further supported by the jump in offloads per game from 10.3 to 13.2 (second in the league).
Decoys are down too, from 36 on average under Barrett to 27 with Potter at the helm, with the Bulldogs playing a more unpredictable, “eyes up” of football as Averillo put it.
Those offloads are opening up more space for the likes of Josh Addo-Carr and Jacob Kiraz to work their magic on the wings.
Even Addo-Carr’s crossfield kick for fellow winger Kiraz on the weekend was proof of the confidence the Bulldogs are playing with, no longer fearful of making a mistake.
Put simply, they are playing to win instead of playing not to lose.
BULLDOGS IN 2022 UNDER BARRETT (RANK)
Points – 9.6 (16th)
Tries – 1.8 (16th)
Run Metres – 1261 (15th)
Post Contact Metres – 413 (15th)
Linebreaks – 2.3 (16th)
Tackle Busts – 24.8 (15th)
Offloads – 10.3 (7th)
Completion Rate – 73.5 (15th)
Tackled Opp 20 – 28.4 (9th)
Red Zone Tries Scored Ratio – 21.8 (16th)
Tries 51+ metres – 2 (8th)
BULLDOGS IN 2022 UNDER POTTER (RANK)
Points – 25.3 (6th, up 10 spots)
Tries – 4.3 (7th, up nine spots)
Run Metres – 1422 (11th, up four spots)
Post Contact Metres – 457 (10th, up five spots)
Linebreaks – 4.8 (10th, up six spots)
Tackle Busts – 32.7 (8th, up seven spots)
Offloads – 13.2 (2nd, up five spots)
Completion Rate – 80.2 (6th, up nine spots)
Tackled Opp 20 – 26.8 (11th, down two spots)
Red Zone Tries Scored Ratio – 13.4 (16th, same spot)
Tries 51+ metres – 9 (1st)
HALVES PICTURE: FLANAGAN’S RISE AND LOCKING DOWN BURTON
Burton and Flanagan have been two of the big winners out of this new approach under Potter and when you ask either of them about their interim coach, one word comes up everytime. Confidence.
“He just lets you play footy, that’s the main thing,” Burton said after the Bulldogs’ 34-4 win over the Eels.
“He just puts confidence in you… he frees us up a bit.”
Flanagan, meanwhile, said Potter had helped simplify his game more and again, gave him “confidence” to simply “go out and play footy”.
It sounds simple but when you give young playmakers the freedom to make mistakes and grow from them, they are bound to improve. That is what the Bulldogs are seeing with Burton and Flanagan.
Of course, Burton also naturally came back to clubland a more confident player after his stint in the Origin arena. That is something Potter has certainly taken notice of.
“I think he’s really taken ownership to actually execute plays,” he said.
“Obviously being around the best players in the game you pick up things, and it just gives you confidence playing at that level, but coming back to the NRL it’s still tough to get wins.”
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At times, the Bulldogs were too reliant on Burton in the early stages of the season, not getting the ball in Flanagan’s hands enough to keep the opposition guessing in defence.
Again, that has changed under Potter with Burton going from averaging 45 possessions per game to 42.3 while Flanagan has seen an uptick in his touches from 35.8 to 51.2.
“I think he’s playing a bit more ad-lib footy,” Averillo said of the change in Flanagan under Potter’s watch.
“That’s through the coaches giving him a bit more confidence. Obviously there is a bit better combinations now in our spine, we’ve had around five or fix games together now, which takes the pressure of him a bit.”
The focus for the Bulldogs now has to be on getting Burton to sign onto a new deal, with the five-eighth holding a player option in his favour for the 2024 season.
Burton will command plenty of interest across the league, although if the wins keep coming it will certainly make it easier to convince the 22-year-old to stay put.
Speaking last week though, Burton said the uncertainty around the club’s coaching situation would not have any bearing on that decision.
“No, definitely not,” the 22-year-old said.
“We’re sticking together as a playing group. We want to stay tight. That other stuff will (take care) of itself.”
THE BIGGEST IMPROVER AND AVERILLO EXPERIMENT PAYS OFF
It is not just the halves though. Hooker Jeremy Marshall-King and fullback Averillo are also flourishing in the second half of the season.
Marshall-King is off to the Dolphins, with Parramatta’s Reed Mahoney on the way to Belmore, so it would have been easy for the 26-year-old to effectively check out.
Instead, Marshall-King has taken his game to another level under Potter, with former Bulldog Josh Reynolds describing him as one of the more underrated success stories at Belmore this year.
“He’s picking his times when to run perfectly,” Reynolds said on Sky Sports Radio on Thursday.
While so much of the focus is on Potter’s role in the Bulldogs’ turnaround, Marshall-King wanted to also give credit to attacking coach Craig Sanderock for helping unlock his potential.
“I think I’ve had a lot more in me and I’ve been going a step higher over the last six weeks,” Marshall-King told AAP last week.
“I think it’s a confidence thing and backing myself a lot more. Everyone sees Mick Potter but our attack coach Craig Sandercock doesn’t get enough credit for what he does.”
ATTACKING STATS IN 2022 UNDER BARRETT
Possessions – 89.1
Line Engagements – 1.6
Runs – 5.3
Metres – 54
Tackle Busts – 1.89
Try Assists – 0
Linebreaks – 0.33
Linebreak Assists – 0.22
ATTACKING STATS IN 2022 UNDER POTTER
Possessions – 103.3
Line Engagements – 1.9
Runs – 7.1
Metres – 71
Tackle Busts – 2.6
Try Assists – 0.44
Linebreaks – 0.67
Linebreak Assists – 0.44
As for Averillo, he looks to have finally found a home at fullback after spending the early stages of his career drifting from the halves to the centres and even the interchange bench.
Again, the switch to the back was something Averillo said Potter floated, suggesting it would play into the 21-year-old’s strengths.
It was an experiment given Averillo did not have much experience in the position but one worth taking with Matt Dufty on the outer and few other options.
“There is a lot more space and I don’t have to think too much and organise too much,” Averillo said this week.
“I just play off-the-cuff, which is what I like. He [Potter] knows I’m a natural footy player and thought the space and ad-lib would help me and it’s worked wonders for me at the moment.”
KIRAZ HEADLINES A YOUNG CORE TO BUILD AROUND
Then you have a crop of promising youngsters coming through, headlined by standout winger Jacob Kiraz.
The 20-year-old was a hat-trick hero for the Bulldogs on the weekend, putting his former side — Newcastle — to the sword in a timely reminder of what could have been.
Knights coach Adam O’Brien though admitted post-game even he did not see Kiraz looking so comfortable in first grade this soon.
“If I’m really honest, I didn’t foresee him jumping to the levels he has this quickly. I didn’t spot that,” he said.
Potter, on the other hand, saw something in Kiraz immediately while working with feeder club Mounties.
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“When Canterbury played us, I had to ask someone who that player was, because he was so elusive,” he said of Kiraz.
“It was good to see him get three tries today. It’s a fantastic story that he’s going so well.”
Aaron Schoupp and Declan Casey have also both shown flashes of their potential this season while the off-contract Jackson Topine quickly established himself as a fan favourite.
What makes things even more exciting at Belmore is what is in store next season.
THE KEY ROSTER CALLS AND ONE BIG COACHING QUESTION
While Addo-Carr Burton and Tevita Pangai Junior may have been the headline additions at Belmore this season, the signing of Storm forward Max King may have been the most shrewd.
With Josh Jackson off-contract at the end of 2023 and unlikely to be extended, the Bulldogs needed a workhorse in the middle to replace him.
At 25 years old, King has quickly proven himself the ideal replacement, averaging 84 metres and 29 tackles per game from just 44 minutes.
Not all of the Bulldogs’ recruitment calls have paid off, with Dufty and Paul Vaughan’s early departures proof of that. But at least the club was quick to identify they had made a mistake instead of doubling down and denying Averillo a chance to develop at fullback.
Now, with Mahoney and Viliame Kikau on the way to Belmore in 2023, the Bulldogs look to have a highly competitive roster that can return to the final for the first time since 2016.
The only question that remains is who will coach them.
At the moment, it looks like Cameron Ciraldo is the likely candidate. As much as the Bulldogs have improved in attack, defence still remains a concern.
Even with Potter in charge, they are still conceding 22.9 points a game — 0.8 more than when Barrett was at the helm.
Fortunately, Ciraldo would know a thing or two about how to fix that as the defensive coach of a Panthers side that rarely gives up more than a couple tries a game.
“I think he could add a lot,” Burton said of Ciraldo last week.
“He’s obviously smart. I worked with him at Penrith and he’s a great coach.”
But, as Burton went on to point out, Potter is also doing an “unreal” job right now and would have to figure somewhere in the Bulldogs’ plans, even if it is in an assistant role.