How Canterbury cover the loss of Ben Barba – or not – is set to be the narrative running through the club’s 2014 NRL season.
The superstar fullback didn’t reach the heights of his 2012 season last year, but his move to Brisbane leaves a huge gap at Belmore.
The Bulldogs are a club who excel in regeneration and Des Hasler is a coach who has proved he can get the best out of his players, with Barba a case in point.
However, with Josh Hoffman’s mooted move from Brisbane to Canterbury knocked on the head, the No.1 jersey appears a problem without an obvious solution for Hasler.
Captain Michael Ennis says there’s an eager queue of players lifting their games in the quest to fill the key role at the back.
“You see that with the really good coaches, they are able to develop players quickly and we have a number of guys there that are options at fullback for us at the moment,” Ennis said.
“(Kiwi international) Sam Perrett has played a lot of fullback and he is a very experienced class of player.
“There is young Pat Templeman, Corey Thompson has had a really good summer and Drury Low has taken his game to another level after getting a taste of playing in the Bulldogs side early last year.
“So there are some real options there for us.
“You see that a lot through our football, that a really good player departs our football side and someone steps in and takes that opportunity.
“Sometimes when you have an established guy like Ben, the guys underneath can sit in cruise control because they know their opportunity will only come if Ben is injured.
“But when he decided to sign with Brisbane and go up there, you could see a real energy in those guys to take the opportunity and stake their claim.
“From since we started in November, the way they have approached and attacked their opportunity has been terrific.”
After a disappointing end to last season as the Bulldogs crashed out of the finals in the first week after their grand final appearance of the season before, Ennis said there’s been a real resolve amongst the group over the off-season.
A Bulldogs pack boasting the likes of James Graham, Aiden Tolman, Sam Kasiano, Frank Pritchard, Tony Williams, Greg Eastwood and up and comers David Klemmer, Dale Finucane and Josh Jackson remains the Bulldogs’ strength heading into the new season.
“We have a great versatility amongst our forward pack, which is a real strength and something you really need in the modern game,” Ennis said.
“James Graham and Aiden Tolman are two guys that get through phenomenal amounts of work.
“Dale Finucane is really following in the footsteps of those guys.
“Josh Jackson, Tony Williams and Frank Pritchard all have that real ability to break open games when they turn it on.
“Josh Jackson is a terrific young kid. I can’t say enough about him.
“I think he is going to be part of the Bulldogs pack for a long time to come.”
Premierships: 8 – 1938, 1942, 1980, 1984, 1985, 1988, 1995, 2004
Finishes over the past three seasons: 2013 – 6th, 2012 – grand finalists, 2011 – 9th
Coach: Des Hasler
Co-captains: Michael Ennis and Frank Pritchard
Gains: Reni Maitua (Eels), Chase Stanley (Dragons), Pat O’Hanlon (Eels)
Losses: Ben Barba (Broncos), Danny Galea (Widnes), Dene Halatau (Tigers), Kris Keating (Hull Kingston Rovers), Joel Romelo (Storm), Martin Taupau (Tigers), Steve Turner (retired)
Strength: Coach Des Hasler.Despite his quirky ways, Hasler has the ability to get the very best out of those under him and players want to play for him.
Weakness: Fullback. Even though Ben Barba didn’t hit his 2012 form last season his exit to the Broncos has left a huge gap at the back, with capable, rather than match-winning, replacements available.
Money Man: Josh Reynolds. Regularly produces in the big games when his team needs it most and is set to emerge as the Bulldogs’ X-Factor in the absence of Barba.
One to watch: David Klemmer. The young prop’s first year in the top grade was cut short due to a knee injury, but he showed enough in his four games in 2013 to indicate he’ll add plenty of starch to an already intimidating Bulldogs pack.
Best team: Sam Perrett, Mitch Brown, Josh Morris, Krisnan Inu, Tim Lafai, Josh Reynolds, Trent Hodkinson, Sam Kasiano, Michael Ennis, Aiden Tolman, Frank Pritchard, Tony Williams, Josh Jackson. Interchange: Greg Eastwood, David Klemmer, Dale Finucane, James Graham
Predicted finish: 5th