Smart Signings: New coach, new rosters, but the same old Canterbury Bulldogs?

    It’s silly season. We’ve gone through the finals, the World Cup and the November 1 deadline after which, NRL players who are out of contract for 2024 can discuss terms with other clubs. With that in mind, we’re launching Smart Signings, our new series on who NRL clubs should be targeting to address their biggest weaknesses, using the players that are actually available to them.

    Let me show you how the Smart Signings sausage is made. First, I make a little note of who the team – in this case the Canterbury Bulldogs – might line up, assuming everyone is fit, and cross-reference it with their comings and goings to work out the actual personnel.

    Then, I look at the stats from last year to refresh myself on where they were good and bad, both the regulation stuff like wins and losses and the more advanced stats that tell you, broadly, what they were good and bad at, to work out what the issues are.

    Lastly, I factor in how the coach has historically used the players available to them, based on previous years, previous jobs and any form there might be to read. Oh, and we look at the cap, the development players, the second grade and the Flegg ranks to see if the problems mightn’t first be solved from within.

    The reason I bore you with my creative process is to explain that, when it comes to the Dogs, there is basically no way to predict what on earth might be about to happen.

    They played two seasons last year. There was the Trent Barrett era, when they were awful both in style and substance, and the post-Trent era, when they weren’t much better in results but were a lot more entertaining.

    Now, with Cameron Ciraldo at the helm for 2023, it’s impossible to say which they will more greatly resemble.

    The freewheeling Mick Potter side were able to play like that because nothing mattered anymore and there was no expectation other than to make playing for and following the Doggies a little bit more fun.

    Now, there is expectation again, and no prior knowledge on how Ciraldo likes his team to set up. Well, he might import the middle service that the Panthers used, but then again, Baz did that and look how it ended up.

    What we do know is that they will have a lot better players. Viliame Kikau, Reed Mahoney and Ryan Sutton all help them, plus their other, younger faces will be a year older.

    Jacob Kiraz was excellent for half a year under Potter and he’s got Khaled Rajab, breakout star at the World Cup, and Paul Alamoti, perhaps the most rated centre in the junior ranks, yet to debut but waiting in the wings and guaranteed to feature at some point in 2023.

    There’s also Andrew Davey, Frankin Pele, Nu Brown and Hayze Perham all in from other clubs and Dec Casey, Jackson Topine and Kiraz have re-signed.

    Josh Jackson. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

    Josh Jackson, unfairly foisted into the Isaah Yeo role under Barrett, has retired, which (on balance) is probably good for all parties.

    One can’t escape the feeling that an impending salary cap problem might have made Gus Gould ask a little harder than he might have otherwise when trying to get his captain to hang them up.

    Paul Vaughan, Jack Hetherington, Corey Allen, Jeremy Marshall-King, Ava Seumanafangai, Zach Dockar-Clay, Aaron Schoupp and Joe Stimson are all out too.

    If you’re keeping track, I make it seven potential first graders in, plus two near-certain debutants, with eight departing, though it’s hard to say who was an actual first grader last year for Canterbury because they chopped and changed so much last year.

    All of this, plus the new coach, makes identifying recruitment trends quite hard. For one, the things that I might have said were big issues last year – the centres, for example, could easily be handed over to a debutant, Alamoti, and a dollar dazzler, Braidon Burns, who is on the books and played the position last year.

    Halfback, too, is oft-cited as a problem area by the huge Kyle Flanagan anti-fanclub, but he seems a relative safe foil for your big money five eighth, Matt Burton, at a time when there isn’t really the space on the cap to go moving big parts of the spine around.

    That cap issue looms large, with Mahoney and Kikau on the payday, Burton already paid and new contracts needed in 2023 for Alamoti, Jake Averillo, Luke Thompson and Flanagan himself (maybe).

    (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

    If you read these columns regularly, you’ll know that they’d certainly let Thommo go if someone else would take his wages, but given the other losses in their pack, he’s pretty much the only nailed on player in the middle rotation.

    Metres were a big problem for the Dogs, and that was with Vaughan, their top gainer. The backrow of Tevita Pangai Jnr, Kikau and a now-fit Raymond Faitala-Mariner is serviceable, but if the answer in the middle is Luke Thompson plus three of Chris Patolo, Max King, Franklin Pele and…err…who knows.

    Maybe TPJ is a front-rower again and they use their surfeit of not-that-great backrowers – Corey Waddell, Andrew Davey et al – to fill that hole.

    On watching their trial last year down at Cronulla, I wrote that they appeared to have a maximalist approach to the ‘no dickheads’ policy by playing Thompson and TPJ together with Jack Hetherington and Vaughan. It could have been fun, both for fans and the judiciary.

    Now, it’s hard to see where the trust comes from. There’s a lot of competent guys who will do a job – Ryan Sutton is one the best of these around – but very little star power.

    My hunch is that Ciraldo will take the production method from Penrith, with the backs engaged to make the metres on plays 1-3, allied with the best of the Potter system, based around offloads and second phase.

    With Josh Addo-Carr and Jacob Kiraz – an offload and tackle break machine – allied to Alamoti, one of the best yardage centres in NSW Cup, and whichever of Burns and Dec Casey he trusts most defensively, it’s possible that a sustainable yardage platform could be laid.

    He now also has the best three offloading backrowers in the NRL in TPJ, Kikau and Topine, plus a true burst bench option – if he can stay fit and trim – in Pele. It’s possible that there might be a good side in there, or at least, a better side than they have had for a long time.

    Cameron Ciraldo. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

    For me, the Smart Signing would be another prop to go along with Thompson, especially a larger body in the style of Vaughan or Hetherington, but without their obvious baggage and drawbacks. They could carry one, too, with Max King and Ryan Sutton off the bench to plug gaps.

    Spencer Leniu – off contract in 2024 – would likely be a decent long-term option, but higher priced, while someone like Liam Knight, also in a contract year at Souths, would certainly be fun. Hame Sele, in a similar situation but it is hard to see Souths letting him go.

    It would be interesting to see a Michael Chee Kam unleashed into a pack that told him to embrace chaos – offload all you like, son – and bump TPJ into that lower-minute, higher-impact forward.

    The Dogs’ lack of impactful forwards is likely to be what holds them from going further. Their halfback issue will either be solved by Flanagan finally coming good, or Khaled Rajab getting a crack before the year is out. Rumours of a Mitch Moses incoming would likely require too much of a salary cap issue to arise.

    There was a joke in sports analytics that an analyst might not tell you who to recruit, but might tell you when to say no once a year and save a million dollars in the process. I can do that too, Gus: Josh Reynolds. No.

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