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Dogs’ decline began with grand final loss

NOW, officially, the Bulldogs will ponder life without Ben Barba as they consider a release for their star fullback. Speculation has become reality. Barba wants out.

Barba’s official request for a release is the latest in a long line of troubles to have beset the Bulldogs this year. Perhaps it is the most significant of them. Yet they have grown used to playing without him; his absences have book-ended this season.

How have they fared, though? Not bad, but not particularly well either. Certainly not what many expected of them after they won the minor premiership last year before falling to Melbourne Storm in the grand final.

In examining the Bulldogs’ season so far and taking a glimpse of a likely future without the fullback, it becomes clear that ANZ Stadium on September 30 last year – the high point of the club for some time – was also where it began to unravel.

The grand final against Melbourne last year was the Bulldogs’ best chance to win a premiership since they last won the title in 2004. But some might argue it was the beginning of the end of their prospects this year. The Storm had a blueprint for defeating the Dogs, and it revolved around shutting down Barba.

Easier said than done, of course, but it was no coincidence that one of Barba’s poorer games last year came against that year’s best side.

Barba was superb across the course of last season. He scored tries which couldn’t be scored by anyone else and stopped tries when they appeared inevitable. He won the Dally M Medal, and had the rest of the competition in awe of his sparkling feet and remarkable talent.

He was also the fulcrum for the Bulldogs. The Bulldogs’ attack last year was revolutionary, centring on 100 kilogram-plus front-rowers at first receiver ball-playing, yet much of it relied on one man wrapping around the back and making it happen; the fullback. Many believe the position has become the most important in any team and they can make that argument based on Barba’s influence last year. He was without doubt the most influential player in the competition. And when he hasn’t been there this year – or has been down in form – they have struggled.

In the grand final, Melbourne denied him the space he had been used to. Melbourne’s forwards worked hard from the inside, their edge defenders rushed the fullback and, as a result, he had little impact in a 14-4 defeat. Opposing coaches would have watched and learnt, taking the Storm’s blueprint into this year.

Some have been surprised that the Bulldogs’ radical game of last year, when the likes of James Graham and Sam Kasiano shifted the ball wide to the playmakers, has not been replicated to the same extent this season. The use of props as playmakers took pressure off the halves and also took much of the competition by surprise. The element of surprise is gone this year, however, as is the effectiveness of the tactic.

”Other teams didn’t know what was going on, but this year they’ve become a bit predictable,” former Bulldogs premiership coach Chris Anderson said.

As a result, the Bulldogs’ yardage has been down, which has put more pressure on their kicking game. Those two front-rowers have been sidelined at stages during this season – as has Barba – and the fullback’s form has not been near where it was.

Des Hasler had dialled back that radical shift in approach this year, but in recent weeks, the team has shown a desire to use it more often.

That trend is likely to continue. But whether it can be as successful as it was last year remains to be seen. An in-form Barba was, and still is, a key to it. ”What we’ve seen this year is Canterbury without Ben Barba,” one insider said, ominously.

Even when he has been playing, Barba has not been the player he was. That has been as easy to see from the grandstand or the lounge room as it has been from Hasler’s monitor, which spits out hours of vision of his star player.

By this stage last season, Barba had not missed a match. In 20 appearances, he had scored 17 tries, and produced as many try assists. On top of those impressive statistics, he had 21 line breaks to his name, four line-break assists, and 126 tackle breaks.

This season, he is ahead in only one of those areas. In 15 matches, he has scored 10 tries, produced three try assists, along with 11 line breaks, six line-break assists and 62 tackle breaks. He hasn’t been the same, and the Bulldogs have struggled.

Others argue Barba’s lack of impact has been a result of the Bulldogs forwards not laying the platform, rather than the other way around. It is a ”chicken or the egg” debate.

Anderson is one who believes Barba’s form this year has come as a result of others’ inability to dominate. ”I don’t think the forwards have set the platform that they used to set,” Anderson said. ”Ben Barba is only going to play well when the forwards set the platform. I thought they’d be a grand final side again. They were tremendous last year. It was all new. And they had intensity last year. But they’ve struggled with that a bit.”

Barba is not the only key player to spend time on the sidelines. Graham was out of the side due to suspension in the early months, while Kasiano, Krisnan Inu and Frank Pritchard have all been out for extended periods.

Kasiano and Greg Eastwood are unlikely to return until the finals, by which time the damage might already have been done. The Bulldogs are almost certain to miss out on the top four, which is a significant blow. No AFL team has come from outside the top four to win that sport’s premiership under the finals system which the NRL has adopted.

Graham’s absence, for a bite on Billy Slater, adds more weight to the theory their downfall began in the grand final. On top of that, teams have lifted against them, knowing they were playing competition heavyweights.

”Every week is a massive contest,” said former Bulldogs skipper Andrew Ryan, who experienced something similar after winning the premiership in 2004. ”Teams see you as the benchmark, every team does their homework on them, and that’s why you give credit to the teams who have been at the top for so long, like Manly and Melbourne.”

Ryan and others argue the Bulldogs have done quite well to be in the position they are, given their slow start to the season. They won just one match over the opening six rounds, and have been up against it most of the season.

”I expected them to start a bit slow,” Ryan said. ”But they’ve been finding their groove.

”I’ve been pretty impressed with a fair few of their performances. I think they can still give it a good shake. I wouldn’t discount them.”

They remain up against it. Which, really, is just how they like it.

Hasler will love what has been written above, knowing that his team has been written off by many. But he will hate what follows. He, and they, are capable of recovering. It remains unlikely, but if there is one coach in the competition who relishes adversity, it is Hasler, who has seen a bit of it at Manly and the Bulldogs. He also relishes underdog status.

His famous ”under the radar” comments have become a source of amusement now, but Hasler genuinely enjoys the scenario of only being rated by the people within the walls of a club. ”This is right up his alley,” one insider said.

His alley is a strange place, of course, but you cannot fault his work ethic. Players talk of Hasler being the first person they see when they arrive at training and the last person they see when they leave. Hasler leaves his home on the northern beaches just after 5am to beat the traffic and arrives at Belmore about 6am. He rarely leaves the office before 5pm.

The Bulldogs strategic analyst Luke Gooden expects the occasional 6am call – Hasler telling him which video he wants cut and sent to him and the players, via their club-issue iPads.

The ground-floor meeting room at Belmore, where Hasler watches most of his videos, is for much of the day occupied – when the door is closed and the light on inside, Bulldogs staff don’t need to be able to see through the frosted glass windows to know who is inside.

Hasler was there on Tuesday, following the loss to the Gold Coast. The players all know if they miss a tackle, or are lazy on the inside, Hasler will eventually know about it.

”He would know what size shoes you’re wearing,” one club insider said. However Hasler rarely offers criticism without a positive message.

He is constantly looking for an edge. One of his latest is a wrestling room, near the railway tracks at Belmore Sports Ground. Hasler decided he didn’t want his team practising wrestling manoeuvres on grass, so he pitched the idea of the wrestling room – then helped lay the mats himself. He is hands on and likes to remain in control.

Which is why he has not enjoyed much of the malaise at the club this year – it has been out of his control; Barba’s absence and injuries. But Hasler knows that the Bulldogs’ destiny, for now, remains in his – and their – hands, starting against Canberra on Saturday night.

For all the talk of underachieving, and despite playing nowhere near their potential for most of the season, they are still fifth.

Barba might be the X-factor on the field, but Hasler is the X-factor off it. While they might not have one for long – and are now planning for life after him – they still have the other.

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