Shock over Junction school promise backflip 

THE Junction Public School Parents and Citizens Committee says it is shocked and disappointed that Newcastle MP Tim Owen effectively reneged on an election promise for a new building at the school.
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P and C spokeswoman Janet Ball said Mr Owen had backed down from a vow to make the new building his ‘‘top educational infrastructure priority’’ for the region.

Mr Owen said publicly this week he was ‘‘politically naive’’ prior to election and a building to replace demountables at the school was a way down a department priority list.

‘‘[The Junction] was the first thing ever asked of me,’’ he said. ‘‘I didn’t really have a good sense of how these things are managed through a Department of Education infrastructure plan.’’

Mr Owen said top of the Hunter list was buildings for Rutherford High, which is almost entirely made up of demountables, with 14 of the structures.

‘‘[The Junction] certainly isn’t the highest priority in the region or else we would have built it.

‘‘I’m disappointed. I really wanted the school to have that opportunity. For me, it certainly is an educational priority.’’

The school has been campaigning to get a classroom it lost in the 1989 earthquake replaced because the school grounds are overrun by seven demountables.

Mr Owen said the demountables were catering for the 208 children from outside of its zone and he wants to get a project control group together to build a case for a new building and get it moved up the list.

Ms Ball said Premier Barry O’Farrell was not politically naive and had also given parents commitments.

‘‘I feel like we’ve been had,’’ she said.

A NSW Education Department spokesman said the schools involved in the Newcastle Inner City Education Futures project agreed to try to cater to out-of-zone enrolments to allow parents more choice and keep siblings together.

Janet Ball, of the Junction Public School P and C committee, is annoyed at MP Tim Owen’s backdown. Picture: Simone De Peak


SPORTING Declaration had massive respect for Craig Bellamy long before I finished reading his newly released book, Home Truths.
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Part of that stems from his remarkable achievements at the helm of the Melbourne Storm.

Regardless of your opinion on subjects such as the salary cap scandal and the grapple tackle, it is undeniable that Melbourne have been the NRL’s benchmark team for almost a decade.

That they have been able to survive in an AFL stronghold – let alone prosper – has been a mighty feat in its own right.

Other clubs have had highs and lows but the Storm have been constant, and come the business end of the 2013 season, they will surely once again be heavily involved.

The other reason I’m a Bellamy fan is that my first two years at the Canberra Times coincided with his last two seasons as assistant coach at the Raiders, during which time I became acquainted with him.

My main impression of Bellamy was that he was an easy-going, likeable bloke – the complete opposite of the fiery customer the TV cameras seem to capture in the coach’s box on game day.

Nonetheless, I learned from first-hand experience what a fierce competitor the man they called ‘‘Bellyache’’ can be.

Each Wednesday the local media types would play touch footy against the Raiders coaching staff.

It was the only good thing about living in Canberra.

Invariably, they would towel us up – no surprise when the likes of Tim Sheens, Mal Meninga, Dean Lance and Bellamy would supplement their ranks with the odd player returning from injury, like Bradley Clyde, Steve Walters, David Furner or Ricky Stuart.

Anyway, one day we were copping our usual 20-0 drubbing when this columnist flummed an intercept.

As I set sail for the tryline at the speed of a startled snail, I had delusions of scoring my first-ever try. Certainly none of the opposition seemed interested in chasing me, presumably out of sympathy.

But out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a blur of movement from the far side of the field.

It was Bellamy, who not only realised yours truly was so slow that (even with a large head start) he could run me down, but was determined enough to do so.

Sure enough, he rounded me up and ruined my day. Good job we weren’t playing for sheep stations.

Anyway back to Bellamy’s new book, which, for the record, was one of those rare reads that I just couldn’t put down.

I really related to his no-nonsense philosophy, how he can accept a bit of ego in his players but prefers them to remain humble and treat outsiders with manners and respect.

In particular, there were a couple of pages that struck a chord.

The first encapsulated his refreshing attitude towards dealing with the media, in an era when most sporting organisations are becoming increasingly paranoid and basically encourage their athletes to give nothing away.

‘‘I will tell my guys: ‘You get asked a question, well, tell them what you think.’ They should stand up on their own two feet and have the courage to be themselves – that’s what I encourage my players to do,’’ Bellamy writes.

Another theme that resonated was his preference for an honest appraisal rather than one that has been sugar-coated.

‘‘A lot of people say I am not a positive person, and I probably agree with that,’’ he writes.

‘‘Sometimes the ‘glass half empty’ adage applies to me, but I think some positive people can have a false positivity. Others can look on the darker side a bit too much.

‘‘I like to think that I am pretty realistic. Sometimes people will take that as negative or positive, but I am in the middle somewhere; I am a realist.

‘‘I don’t like being negative for the sake of it, but I don’t like being positive for the sake of it either. I like to play the percentages.

‘‘If things are wrong, I am not going to pretend it is all rosy.

‘‘I could not do that, even if I wanted to.’’

Hear hear, I thought.

Give me home truths, however blunt, instead of positive spin any day of the week.

● Sporting Declaration would like to wish a long-time workmate, Grant Sproule, all the best after leaving the Newcastle Herald in search of new challenges.

Grant’s talents have livened up this page many times over the years. As I’ve told him on the odd occasion, I believe he is the finest graphic artist in Australia, if not the world.

Good luck, Sprouley, champion.

It’s been a pleasure working with you.

Melbourne Storm coach Craig Bellamy.

Weston welcome chance to erase last-round nightmare 

WESTON will not need extra motivation today when they travel to Edgeworth for the Northern NSW State League elimination semi-final.
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As well as playing for survival, the Bears are hurting and desperate for redemption after an 8-0 drubbing on home soil to Lambton Jaffas in the last round.

But if they are looking for an extra spur, Weston coach Darren Elkin believes they should look no further than club captain Chris Cousins.

The 35-year-old father of three, who has led the Bears since 2006, will retire at the end of the season after more than 150 first-grade games for the club.

Elkin said the centre back was a respected figure at Weston and deserved to go out on a high.

‘‘Couso does a lot of the talking and a lot of the leadership around the club,’’ Elkin said. ‘‘He will be missed, but I don’t think the club will realise how important he is until next year, if they are going through a rough patch. He has great leadership qualities.’’

Cousins, who started at the Bears but had stints at Cessnock and Beresfield, was confident his teammates would not need an added push to fire up today.

‘‘I said to the guys after the game [last week], because they were all gutted and filthy about the result and how we played, that the good thing is we get an opportunity to right the wrongs,’’ Cousins said.

‘‘If we finished sixth, we’d have to swallow that pill over the whole off season.’’

Elkin said he had tried to keep training relaxed this week because he believed his players had placed too much pressure on themselves in recent games.

The Bears will be without midfield enforcer Rob Macbeth, who was sent off last week for using an elbow and copped a three-week ban, and playmaker Jason Cowburn due to suspension today.

Edgeworth will also be down two key players.

Goal-scoring midfielder Aaron Pritchard is suspended due to yellow card accumulation after picking up one for kicking a ball away last week.

Striker Chris Wheeler, who has battled a hamstring problem all season, is highly unlikely to play after limping off late last week.

A still confident Eagles coach Gary Wilson said 17-year-old Brody Taylor would come in for Wheeler, while Alex Johnson-Young or German Marco di Biccari would replace Pritchard.

RESPECTED: Chris Cousins.

Young guns aim up for Hamilton

TOM Davies started the season as a 15-year-old thinking he would be lucky to get on the bench for Hamilton’s under-23s.
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Pat Brown was a young man with a point to prove in first grade.

Neither expected to be starting players in a top-grade semi-final.

Tomorrow the teenagers will be just that for Olympic when they take on Lambton Jaffas at Edden Oval in the qualifying semi-final.

Davies, now 16, has carved out a starting position in his first season at Hamilton after beginning the season in under-19s.

It has been a rapid rise for the year 10 student at St Philip’s Christian College, who has taken every chance coach Michael Bolch has provided.

‘‘After the first five or six games, we needed a right fullback in 23s,’’ Bolch said.

‘‘We were worried he was too young but he came off the bench and did really well. ‘‘Then he started in 23s. Then against Phoenix when we won 5-0 we blooded him in first grade. He came on in the last 20 minutes and did really well. From there he’s been with the senior squad.

‘‘Realistically I could bring Joel Grenell into the starting line-up this week, but Tommy doesn’t deserve to lose his spot.’’

Brown, 19, has also seized his opportunity, scoring nine goals in 15 games, including a hat-trick against Charlestown.

The striker was part of Olympic’s under-23s grand final win last year. That came after he was cut from the Newcastle Jets Youth squad.

Determined to prove himself, he has taken on a greater role in first grade this season after a handful of appearances last year.

‘‘He used to have a couple of bad habits, putting his head down too much and losing the ball, but the senior players have really taken him under their wings,’’ Bolch said. ‘‘He’s come along really well.’’

Like Brown, Davies said the support of senior teammates had played a big part in his development this year.

‘‘I was NSWIS last year but I just had enough of it all and decided I wanted to come back to club football, because I enjoyed playing it before,’’ Davies said. ‘‘All the boys have been good. They’ve helped me out a lot and I’ve got a lot of confidence out of it.’’

Both were confident a fresh and in-form Hamilton could turn the tables on the Jaffas after two 2-1 losses to them.

‘‘The first game we were all over them but they took their chances,’’ Davies said.

Brown added: ‘‘The second game with all the midweek games we were playing, we were just stuffed.’’

Hamilton will be without captain David Hodgson (broken wrist, finger) but get back Matt Swan (hamstring).

Jaffas coach David Tanchevski, who will be without the suspended Abe Wheelhouse, expected the loss of Hodgson to hurt Hamilton.

‘‘I think Hodgo was the focal point of their attack,’’ Tanchevski said.

‘‘They play that long ball a lot for Hodgo to flick on to their strikers, so I don’t know how they are going to reshape their game without him.

‘‘But they’ve got plenty of pace up front, which is always a danger, and their defence is always solid, so they’re going to be tough to beat.’’

Teenagers Tom Davies, left, and Pat Brown at Darling St yesterday. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Game 100 for Merewether captain Mick Gill

MEREWETHER captain Mick Gill is not big on maths.
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He joined the Greens in 2008 and approaching this season guessed he would be closing in on 100 games.

‘‘I asked at the start of the year where I was at and got confirmation that is was 82,’’ Gill said.

It didn’t take a great deal of arithmetic for the centre turned breakaway and now hooker to look at the draw and circle round 18.

Wanderers at Townson Oval almost jumped off the page. He couldn’t have scripted it better.

‘‘I was pretty stoked when I realised it Wanderers,’’ he said.

‘‘We have had some classic battles and it’s a game that you always lift for.’’

Gill also didn’t require a calculator to work out that the winner today will claim third place and a second chance in the semi-finals.

Maitland made the grand final from fourth in 2010 and Uni did likewise in 2008, but no team has won the premiership from outside the top three in recent memory.

‘‘It is my 100th game but the big thing is that top three, and both sides will be chasing that hard,’’ Gill said.

‘‘It gives you that week up your sleeve, which is handy as history has shown.’’

With Mitch Steele, Mark Wade, Keith Barlow and Adam Nolan returning, the Greens will field their strongest line-up of the campaign.

‘‘We always thought if we could get everyone back on deck we would give it a good shake,’’ Gill said.

‘‘It is a good time to be at full strength, coming into the finals.

‘‘We have to get the job done tomorrow. That’s first and foremost.’’

Merewether came back from 21-0 down and then hung on desperately at the death to trump Wanderers 26-24 in their first encounter at No.2 Sportsground in round nine – a match in which the home side turned down three penalty shots directly in front.

The triumph was the Greens’ seventh straight over their fierce rivals since the epic 2009 grand final, which the Two Blues won 21-20 in extra time.

Gill played down the record and doubted that it gave them a mental edge.

‘‘It is just the way it has panned out,’’ he said.

‘‘I don’t think there is too much behind it.

‘‘If they take three points [from a penalty] in round nine, we aren’t talking about the record.

‘‘There have been some close games which they could probably look upon and say ‘if we did a few things different we could have walked away with a win’.’’

Merewether have won five of the past six, with the loss being a 29-17 defeat at home to premiers Hamilton three weeks ago.

‘‘Every time you lose you look at things,’’ Gill said.

‘‘ We went back to the drawing board.

‘‘I was playing five-eighth and I think those days are behind me, and we had a few injuries as well.

‘‘We did learn a few things and have worked on it.

‘‘The last couple of weeks we focused on us and how we want to play in the back end of the year.’’

Wanderers have made four changes, one forced, from the 30-7 loss to The Waratahs – a defeat that cost them third place. Luke Gibson comes in for Blair Rush (shoulder) at lock, while Vilai Kelemete and Corey Te Koeti add grunt to the back row.

The backline has also been reshuffled. Tapaki Rahui moves to fly-half, Luke Menchin shifts to outside centre and Lewie Catt to the wing.

Mick Gill hopes to celebrate his milestone game with a win over arch rivals Wanderers. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Rudd passes the Danii test with aplomb – not so his man in Swan

Kevin Rudd and Perth fitness model Danii Alexis. Photo: Andrew MearesFull election coverageComment: No appeal in those with bulldust for brainsComment: A suppository of sex appeal
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”Sex appeal” are dirty words in election 2013.

So the entrance of Danii Alexis, a Perth fitness model, into the glare of the campaign had to be handled with extreme care by Kevin Rudd.

The Prime Minister was clearly taken with Alexis.

”Hi, Danii,” he purred.

Rudd remained clear of the most obvious pitfall in his path, maintaining a gentlemanly line of sight. However, his candidate for Swan, John Bissett, failed the test – as pictures would later show. His gaze was last seen on the tiled floor of the Westfield Carousel shopping centre in suburban Perth.

Rudd’s stinging rebuke of Tony Abbott over the Opposition Leader’s sex appeal gaffe was instantly left looking decidedly hollow, as some of his campaign strategists had feared when he launched the assault.

Speaking later, Alexis described the resulting pictures as ”cheeky” and said she had no problem with their being published. ”I’m a fitness model and I go in competitions where you have 10 judges marking your body in competition,” she said.

Alexis, who was working on the counter of a raw nutrition stall at Westfield, was one of hundreds of shoppers and shopkeepers keen to get between an iPhone and the PM.

Rudd is desperate for a bounce in the polls and proof he can still charm a retail crowd is an invaluable image for his team.

Earlier, at a CSIRO research centre, Rudd looked less assured than when working the public.

Things started badly, with Education Minister Bill Shorten giving a glimpse into just how exhaustive the planning of Rudd’s Northern Territory tax break had been. That is, he had never heard of it until the PM announced it in Darwin.

Rudd said his Treasurer, Chris Bowen, and Finance Minister, Penny Wong, were consulted but the belief among the busload of media is that this is likely to have been during a rushed phone hook-up somewhere between Jupiters Casino, Townsville, where the Rudd camp bunkered down earlier this week, and Darwin.

As Rudd left Carousel, news broke that star recruit Peter Beattie was looking an outside chance to even make it to Canberra, with other must-win marginals also looking doubtful.

Despite this, Rudd’s main advisers said he had a better week this week than last. A clearer choice between him and Abbott had developed.

“We’re focusing in all the time on the different choices on offer,” said a Rudd operative.

Perhaps things will start to look up. Whatever happens, Mr Bissett should be given the message to always look up.

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Rohan answers need for speed

Red-letter day: Gary Rohan reflects on his path back from a broken leg. Photo: Anthony Johnson Photo: Anthony JohnsonThat which does not kill us makes us stronger, and so it has proven for Sydney young gun Gary Rohan who, in one of the best feel-good stories of the season, is making his AFL comeback on Sunday.
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Rohan was already lightning fast before he broke his leg nearly 16 months ago but, in an ominous sign for the Swans’ finals rivals, he’s even quicker now.

There had been fears the 22-year-old’s electrifying pace, his greatest weapon, would be dulled but the time spent strengthening muscles in his upper body and legs may have produced an even more powerful athlete.

”I feel more explosive when I take off,” Rohan said. ”I’m a lot stronger than last year.”

Rohan, with his new-found pace, is shaping as a potential ace up Sydney’s sleeve in their premiership defence if he can make a successful transition back to the big time.

”There wouldn’t be many blokes faster than Lewis Jetta, but he’s probably one of them,” Sydney coach John Longmire said.

”That’s been really exciting to see. So he gives that great speed to the team, he’s a fantastic chaser and tackler. He puts on real pressure in our forward half. But we’re also mindful that whatever he gives the team this year he’ll be better again next year.”

It has been a rocky road back for Rohan, who at the start of the season still walked with a limp. His goal for this year was humble – he just wanted to be able to run again.

When he could run without favouring a leg he sat down with the medical and coaching staff, and the curtain-raiser to the game against GWS was earmarked as his return to competitive football.

The instructions from Longmire were simple – just enjoy playing again. But once he stepped on to the field his form exceeded not only his expectations but those of the club.

”I thought I would struggle for the last half of this year but I went out there and completely forgot about my injury and focused on my footy,” Rohan said.

Equally as important, Rohan was able to withstand the stresses of playing and training despite such a long time out of the game.

”I surprised myself with how I pulled up after games, I thought I hadn’t been playing for a year [and] I’d struggle,” Rohan said.

”Pre-season, you come back and your first game in the NAB Cup you pull up really sore. I didn’t pull up sore at all in the first four games, so hopefully that’s still the same.”

Rohan has been nagging Longmire the past three weeks to pick him in the seniors and he was granted his wish on Tuesday. ”We announced it downstairs in front of the players and to be honest he was probably a little bit emotional,” Longmire said. ”He kept telling me for the last three weeks to pick him and I’ve ignored him to a certain degree, but I think when we finally said, ‘OK mate, you’re in’, I think it did hit him in terms of how much work he’s been able to do.

”Blokes like [Fremantle midfielder] Michael Barlow and others across the competition [who suffered badly broken legs] we’ve seen over the years are probably the only ones that can fully understand the amount of work and challenges that Gary has faced.”

The affable redhead’s return will be a boost for the Swans’ morale for the business end of the season.

”There are not too many players who get a standing ovation when they come back and start playing again in the reserves, so that’s the esteem he’s held in around the footy club,” Longmire said.

”He’s just a really popular kid and he’s really upbeat and gets around the place and is a really good person to be around.”

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Champion Geale enjoys his status as underdog

The wings and cross tattooed on the back of world middleweight champion Daniel Geale are for ”protection”, but, typical of the fighter known as the sport’s nicest guy they’re not to shield him from the punches Britain’s Darren Barker will throw in their fight on Sunday.
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From his ocean-front room in a swish casino resort in far-off New Jersey, Geale revealed the skin art was to protect his family.

”The cross and the wings is a family theme,” Geale said. ”It is something I had done many years ago … it’s like protection for my family … it’s nice and personal, but I also think they look pretty cool.”

Who’s going to argue? After all, Geale, the International Boxing Federation’s champion, lays claim to being perhaps the world’s best middleweight. And, as a long list of opponents including Anthony Mundine alongside the Germans Felix Sturm and Sebastian Sylvester learned the hard way, you pity the fool who underestimates him.

Barker, who enjoys a seven centimetre height advantage and boxes to perpetuate the memory of his brother, who was killed in a car crash seven years ago, seemed to have fallen into the same trap. He made it painfully aware he viewed Geale as his golden chance to become champion, while the Londoner’s trainer, Tony Sims, started to plan his fighter’s mandatory defences against British fighters Martin Murray, Andy Lee and Matthew Macklin long before a punch was thrown in anger.

”I’m not worried about anything my opponent might say,” Geale, a father of three, said. ”Actually, the more he says, the better it is for me. When they talk it up, it’s really their doubt talking. I have confidence in myself, and the more they try to insult me, try and put me off the game, it’s actually good, because it’s their energy being wasted.”

Geale, who had also held the WBA and IBO versions of the middleweight belt, has been the perennial underdog ever since he laced on the gloves for his first amateur bout in Launceston as a 10-year-old against Mickey Streets, a likely lad who was two years older and stronger. ”He beat me. I actually lost my first two fights but I fought Micky again in my third one and beat him.”

The Tasmanian has made a habit of beating his more fancied rivals ever since. And it has followed the same, methodical formula ever since he was, by his own admission, an ”under-developed” 15-year-old pitted against men who were far bigger, more confident and definitely more imposing.

”At 15 or 16 I hadn’t developed and I fought blokes who looked like monsters,” he said. ”I fought men with muscles bulging from everywhere. I remember I fought a Samoan in Tasmania, and while we fought at 71 kilos he looked like he was 91. He clouted me with a big right hand in the first round and I thought it was over there and then, but I stuck to it and beat him quite comfortably in the end.”

He says there was no bruising of his ego in being viewed as, for want of a better word, ”easy” by his opponents. Geale’s record displays a 50 per cent KO rate, while he has won a high proportion of his fights that have gone the distance.

”Barker will believe he has ‘it’ to win the fight and win the title,” he said knowingly. ”I like my opponents going in confident, and in most cases they do. However, when they get in there they realise it’s different. I’ve been overlooked in the past, considered the underdog despite being the champion, but it’s a position I like. I like the other guy being a little bit confident and cocky and expecting to win, because I know when the fight starts it’ll be different.”

Geale, however, acknowledged Barker was a good fighter, just as the Germans Sylvester and Sturm were when he marched into their backyards and humbled them. He learned to read the tell-tale signs of when his stinging and relentless barrages had knocked the confidence out of them.

”The breathing and the body language changes,” Geale said. ”You can tell by the breathing – it gets much heavier.

”If they were confident and coming forward but they then change tactics and move backwards, you know they’re in trouble.”

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Hasler to have the final say on whether Barba will leave early

Canterbury chief executive Raelene Castle says coach Des Hasler will probably have the final say on whether Ben Barba is granted an early release.
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As revealed by Fairfax Media, Barba’s management lodged a written request for a release a fortnight ago to allow him to reunite with his family in Queensland.

The Dally M medallist’s partner, Ainslie Currie, is looking for properties somewhere between Brisbane and the Gold Coast with a view to settling closer to her family. Barba, the father of two young children, is hoping to repair his relationship with Currie and relocate with her.

In a statement released by the club, Barba said: “I’m really close to my daughters and working hard on my relationship. Their move to Brisbane would create a difficult situation for me to be in playing football in Sydney, which I hope people can understand.

“I thank the Bulldogs for their willingness to engage in discussions around releasing me from my contract and thank them for the support they have shown me throughout this process, and throughout my career with the Bulldogs.”

The situation is a delicate one for Bulldogs officials. They have helped Barba through a difficult period in his personal life and realise his happiness is the key to stability on and off the field. But they are wary of handing their best and most popular player to Brisbane, the club most likely to be the beneficiary should a compassionate release be granted.

Castle said Hasler, who has stood by the 24-year-old through the ups and downs of the past 18 months, could ultimately determine whether they enforce the remaining two years of his contract.

”Definitely, he probably has the lead opinion in this whole process,” she said. ”It’s important for him to be comfortable, whether it be a team with Ben or a team without Ben.”

The decision could ultimately come down to how they can replace the local junior. Attempts to poach NSW custodian Josh Dugan from the Dragons were unsuccessful, while the club has made no secret of its desire to attract Israel Folau back to the NRL.

Castle denied she was in negotiations with the Wallabies star or any other player. ”We are working through a process, he’s [Barba] obviously contracted to the club for two more years,” she said.

”We have to make sure that we’re comfortable, that we look after Ben to ensure he’s in a good space and that we consider all of our fans in this. It’s a process at its beginning, not at its end, and there’s more to go before we get an outcome.

”I don’t know what the end is going to look like. We want to get a resolution to ensure all the parties are happy and it takes as long as it takes.”

Several Bulldogs fans attacked Barba on Twitter over his desire to leave the club.

Barba bit back, adding a thumbs up symbol on a retweet: ”BiLLyBoiiiiii: @BenBarba03 hahaha yeah laugh u arrogant Lil prik.”

Barba also returned serve when he was compared with Dugan, who shifted to the Dragons after being axed by Canberra: ”No not at all I’m not the one frustrated here “@omz85: @BenBarba03 doing a josh Dugan are lol what’s wrong Benny fans getting too ya.”

Barba was subjected to vile references to his daughter, to which he responded: ”Big man you are writing about my kids u fool. Be a man and come see me.”

Should the Bulldogs relent but fail to nab Folau – or another big-name replacement – there is every chance Josh Morris will be considered for the role on a full-time basis.

While Hasler has named Sam Perrett in the No.1 jersey since Barba suffered an ankle injury against Parramatta, Morris has been the custodian. After being preferred in favour of Perrett, Krisnan Inu and Drury Lowe for the gig, Morris joked that no man says no to Hasler.

”I think everyone is too scared to say no to Des,” he said earlier this month. ”I said I would do whatever is best for the team and if, in the time being that means playing fullback, then that’s an added bonus because it’ll get me a lot fitter having to run those extra kilometres every game.”

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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.
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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.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.