CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA – JULY 11: Nick Cotric of the Raiders scores a try during the round nine NRL match between the Canberra Raiders and the Melbourne Storm at GIO Stadium on July 11, 2020 in Canberra, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)
If there was ever any evidence required to highlight just how dire the Canterbury Bulldogs’ salary cap problems had become just a few years back, their recent spending spree provides it.
The books at the Kennel had become well and truly cooked under the stewardship of former Chairman Ray Dib and his board, not in an illegal sense of course, just in the sense that the finances were fried.
It was a disaster that saw a host of loyal and quality players moved on to make space for a 2021 recruitment push that the new board had promised would occur. In essence, the Bulldogs wrote off the last two seasons; knowing full well that there was little or no chance they would be competitive.
The team has well and truly lived up to that billing. With only a late 2019 run providing any joy for fans, the 2020 pandemic-riddled season saw the blue and whites manage to accumulate just three wins and only avoid the wooden spoon thanks to the disaster that was the Brisbane Broncos.
However, there is hope in the air as the 2021 pre-season begins and Canterbury looms as the big short-to-mid-term NRL improver; based not only on the new talent already acquired but also a certain young man from the west who will arrive at Belmore in 2022.
The origins of what fans will hope is a Bulldog resurgence perhaps began in the death throes of the 2020 season, with Englishman Luke Thompson beginning to find his feet in the NRL. After adjusting to the pace of the game in his first few matches, there were real signs that Canterbury had indeed found the enforcer type they had been looking for ever since James Graham departed the club in 2017.
Canberra and representative powerhouse Nick Cotric has joined the club; no doubt to bolster what was the most impotent backline in the competition, with former Sharks and Roosters half Kyle Flanagan also signing with the club in October.
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – AUGUST 28: Kyle Flanagan of the Roosters makes a break during the round 16 NRL match between the Sydney Roosters and the Brisbane Broncos at the Sydney Cricket Ground on August 28, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Without an effective halves combination in recent times and numerous men having been given the opportunity to cement a role in the six or seven, Canterbury has finally seen the reality before their very eyes; investing in a 22-year-old with immense upside and a player far greater skilled in the playmaker role than the men currently at the club.
This week, the club revealed a poorly kept secret and a major coup when they announced the acquisition of young Penrith star Matt Burton for the 2022 season and the two years to follow. With just six NRL games under his belt, the Dubbo-born 20-year-old looms as a new NRL star; something the Bulldogs have now heavily invested in.
Destined for the number six jersey, Burton’s combination with Flanagan could well be a decisive one come 2022.
Along with the important re-signings of captain Josh Jackson, Jayden Okunbor, Jake Averillo, Will Hopoate and Adam Elliott, the core of the Dogs’ team instantly looks far more impressive than it has for some time.
Some may have even underestimated just how much cash has been freed up by recent departures and players off-contract at the end of 2021 such as Dylan Napa, Nick Meaney, Lachlan Lewis, Christian Chrichton and Sione Katoa.
That underestimation is perhaps confirmed when one considers the fact that the club is reportedly in the hunt for the services of New South Wales star Josh Addo-Carr and another wonder kid from the foot of the mountains in the shape of Stephen Crichton.
GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA – JULY 26: Stephen Crichton of the Panthers scores a try during the round 11 NRL match between the Gold Coast Titans and the Penrith Panthers at Cbus Super Stadium on July 26, 2020 in Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)
The idea of a backline including Hopoate, Addo-Carr, Cotric, Crichton and Okunbur will have the Bulldogs faithful giddy with excitement, especially with Burton and Flanagan calling the shots around the ruck.
It all sounds like a little too much to ask. However, CEO Andrew Hill has brought in a powerful new sponsor in the form of Laundy Hotels and already delivered Cotric, Burton and Flanagan. If Hill’s pockets are as deep as many people believe, another key signing could well be announced sooner rather than later.
Should the trend continue and the big names draw more key men to Belmore, it would be easy to find reasons why new coach Trent Barrett could have the team challenging very quickly. Perhaps even a new three-year premiership window has opened for the famous club.
It would be a window well bought but in modern rugby league, that is usually the way.