NRL: The rebuilding Canterbury Bulldogs won’t play finals football in 2023

The drums are beating out at Belmore – with fans expecting the Bulldogs to end their Top 8 drought. But someone has to prick the balloon. They won’t be playing finals, writes David Riccio.

Someone has to prick the balloon.

At the risk of being banned from Jobel’s Cafe, the unofficial club house of the Bulldogs on Burwood Road in Belmore, it’s time to quell the drums.

Canterbury won’t be playing finals football in 2023.

Improved, yes.

Top eight? Not this year.

The Bulldogs, Wests Tigers and St George-Illawarra are the three biggest stories to begin the new NRL season.

The three Sydney clubs will dominate discussion on NRL 360, light up the board on talkback radio and feature on the back page of The Telegraph and home page of our digital content more than any other club.

Excitement is justified for Dogs and Tigers fans, with a new coach and a strategic recruitment drive.

Dragons fans deserve to be optimistic that a new year will bring renewed spirit, but not without a dose of trepidation, that 2023 could bring more of the same.

Yet it’s the Dogs fans that need to temper their belief that this team will break a seven year finals drought.

Perhaps it’s the distraction of the bright lights that follow Phil Gould’s every move, or the glitter that has fallen at the feet of new recruits Reed Mahoney and Viliame Kikau, ever since they slipped on a Canterbury polo.

Or maybe it’s the belief, which is understandable given his outstanding apprenticeship, in head coach Cameron Ciraldo.

But the cold truth is this, Canterbury will need to produce a 12-month transformation reminiscent of a Jenny Craig commercial, where the before and after photos are barely recognisable, to make the finals.

From the team that finished 12th last season, Canterbury have added just two major signings in Reed Mahoney and Viliame Kikau.

Just. Two. Major. Signings.

Given the hype, expectation and widely-considered view that the Dogs are headed for September, you would think they have also signed Nathan Cleary, James Tedesco and James Fisher-Harris.

With great respect to new recruits Josh Reynolds, Ryan Sutton, Hayze Perham, Andrew Davey and Franklin Pele, who will obviously increase Canterbury‘s potency, all five players would be in the bottom half of the Dogs 30-man roster for the lowest paid.

It’s as though within the space of four months, Canterbury fans have forgotten how far behind the Bulldogs are coming from.

The 12th placed Bulldogs managed just seven wins in 2022.

The team that made the finals in eighth, the Raiders, had 14 wins.

At the very least, Canterbury will need to double the amount of games they won last year to play finals footy in 2023.

To do that, they will also need to eradicate these horrible numbers from last year.

Take a big breath as we crunch through these figures Canterbury fans.

15th in the competition for tries scored, last in the league for line breaks, last in the league for post contact metres, 15th in the game for tackle busts, 14th in the NRL for errors…and that’s just their attack.

The Dogs defence, which is Ciraldo‘s greatest strength as a coach, reads just as bad.

15th in the league for post contact meters conceded, 11th for points conceded, 13th for penalties conceded and without going any further, 12th for conceding the most set restarts.

It seems also that there has been so much hype about Gus, Kikau, Mahoney and Ciraldo that the Dogs‘ most important area of focus has been pushed to the side.

When in reality, it is paramount to playing finals footy and prove this column wrong.

No doubt the damaging Kikau will improve the crucial area of moving up the field for Canterbury.

The addition of Sutton will help, however, while he is recognised as honest and tough, his go-forward will need to surpass his average 77-metres of last season.

With the addition of Kikau and Sutton, the Dogs pack is largely the same pack that saw just two forwards average more than 100-metres per game in 2022.

The two players? Paul Vaughan (who is now in the UK) with 119-metres and Tevita Pangai Jr just scraping over the ledger with an average of 101-metres.

At Penrith, Ciraldo had the fortune of coaching fearless pack leaders and intimidators like Fisher-Harris and Moses Leota. Who is going to stand up for the Dogs so that Flanagan, Burton, Mahoney and Perham can get their plays on?

Perham will have just one trial at fullback for Canterbury as he is playing in the All-Stars match this weekend. He is fast, reads the game very well and is a strong communicator.

But he has never played with halves Kyle Flanagan and Matt Burton. The same goes for Mahoney.

That spine chemistry needs time to gel.

Without a doubt, I expect the Bulldogs to climb the ladder in 2023.

But finals footy? That will take a little more time.

Originally published as NRL: The rebuilding Canterbury Bulldogs won’t play finals football in 2023

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