SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 20: Bulldogs coach Trent Barrett looks on during the round 15 NRL match between the Parramatta Eels and the Canterbury Bulldogs at Bankwest Stadium, on June 20, 2021, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

The short answer is yes. The Bulldogs will absolutely improve in 2022.

After claiming the 2021 wooden spoon, there’s only one way to go: Up. The Bulldogs have acquired some big stars in Matt Burton and Josh Addo-Carr, and haven’t lost anyone that their numerous new signings can’t cover. At the very least, they’ll win more than 3 games next year.

But the question remains: Just how well will they go?

Did they buy the right players?

There’s a lingering feeling that the Bulldogs have missed a trick. Their highest-paid marquee players are Luke Thompson (prop), Nick Cotric (wing) Josh Addo-Carr (wing) and Tevita Pangai Junior (second row).

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 07: Tevita Pangai Junior of the Broncos looks to pass during the round 16 NRL match between the Cronulla Sharks and the Brisbane Broncos at Shark Park on July 07, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

While the Broncos (in a similar ladder position) had far less room to move in terms of salary cap freedom, they bought what both teams needed the most in an organising halfback.

The Bulldogs essentially have two five-eighths (who have played a lot of centre) in the halves, Dragons reject Matt Dufty at the back, and the Rabbitohs’ third-choice hooker Joshua Cook will share duties with the injury-prone Jeremy Marshall-King.

While Tevita Pangai Junior is a game-breaking X-factor, buying Adam Reynolds or Shaun Johnson on the same $750k per year contract would have had a far greater impact.

The halves gambit

Matt Burton is undoubtedly a tremendous player, but he played last season as a centre and has played most of his halves games accompanied by another Origin-quality half in Nathan Cleary or Jarome Luai.

He’s a brilliant runner of the ball and kicks a huge floating bomb, but isn’t a game manager and isn't used to steering a team around yet. He’s still 21 years of age - the typical half hits their prime at around 28.

NSWRL Rd 2 - Mounties v Panthers
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 20: Matt Burton of the Panthers runs the ball during the round two NSWRL match between the Mounties and the Penrith Panthers at Bankwest Stadium, on March 20, 2021, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Just two years ago there were calls to drop a 21-year-old Nathan Cleary after an underwhelming start to the season, and promising talents like Brodie Croft and Kyle Flanagan have had their careers stall after being given too much control of a side at a young age. Burton is exceptionally talented, and if anyone can go to a new level in 2022, it's him, but he'll need to find his feet quick.

Whoever the Dogs choose as Burton’s partner should be given an extended run in the side, based on 2021, when Lachlan Lewis, Brandon Wakeham, Kyle Flanagan, Jake Averillo all spent their time in first grade looking over their shoulders with the axe hanging over their heads.

A young half needs to be fearless and shrug off failure, but there’s no 20-year-old five-eighth that’s willing to throw a cut-out pass, or kick on the third tackle, if it risks them losing a game and being dropped to reserve grade.

Achieving cohesion with a new side

Their signings are positive moves, but one also has to wonder whether a 3-month pre-season will be enough to find cohesion between a completely new side. According to the predicted side below, nine out of the seventeen players will be new to the club in 2022, as well as Corey Allan, Nick Cotric, Jack Hetherington and Corey Waddell joining the club in 2021 and Thompson signing (and Averillo debuting) in 2020.

When 88 per cent of your best 17 has been with the club for less than two seasons and both your coach (Trent Barrett) and two assistants (David Furner and Craig Sandercock) joined the club in 2021, getting everyone on the same page is tricky.

While the Bulldogs will improve by the end of the 2022 season, one can only hope they start winning games before Trent Barrett’s sacking is considered. With an almost completely clean slate, Barrett and his team need to tighten their defensive systems and prioritise defence over attack.

Points set to flow

Looking on the positive side, the injection of offload and tackle bust machine Tevita Pangai Junior, Matt Dufty’s electric skills at fullback and their strike outside backs including Nick Cotric, Brent Naden and Josh Addo-Carr will mean the Bulldogs’ previous issues with scoring points.

There won’t be any issues with having an intimidating pack, with notorious enforcers Hetherington, Thompson and Pangai Jr sure to set the tone (although may spend half the season suspended again).

Overall, despite not recruiting an experienced spine player for 2022, the Bulldogs will still improve as a side, and will slide out of the bottom 2 as the Tigers and Cowboys languish.

On the back of promising performances, Trent Barrett will keep his job for 2022 at least. Expect them to finish in the middle of the bottom eight at 11th, 12th or 13th.

Bulldogs predicted side for 2022

  1. Matt Dufty
  2. Josh Addo-Carr
  3. Corey Allan
  4. Brent Naden
  5. Nick Cotric
  6. Matt Burton
  7. Jake Averillo
  8. Paul Vaughan
  9. Jeremy Marshall-King
  10. Luke Thompson
  11. Tevita Pangai Junior
  12. Josh Jackson (c)
  13. John Asiata
  14. Joshua Cook
  15. Jack Hetherington
  16. Max King
  17. Corey Waddell
  18. Braidon Burns

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