There is no doubt as to which NRL team produced the most improved performance in Round 3 of the NRL competition.
The Bulldogs turned around a fortnight of rubbish to down the undefeated Tigers at Campbelltown on Sunday afternoon in a match that confounded the bookies and fans.
Round 1 saw the blue and whites debut their new look squad in the shaky isles. What followed was a massacre as the Warriors ran riot. Despite a promising start against the Eels in Round 2, the Bulldogs capitulated in the second half to the sounds of whimpering moans in the kennel.
The hopes of a season of renewal appeared forlorn and a seemingly undersized and undermanned squad played like boys against more powerful and committed opponents.
The turmoil at Belmore has been well documented. The 2019 squad takes to the field without Josh Morris, Brett Morris, Aaron Woods, Moses Mbye and David Klemmer; all members of the squad at the commencement of the 2018 season. When considered with the departures of James Graham, Josh Reynolds and Sam Kasiano at the end of 2017, the hole into which the previous board dug themselves can be fully appreciated.
With a mismanaged salary cap, the questionable pursuit of players such as Woods and Kieran Foran and a long term injury to Raymond Faitala-Mariner, the Bulldogs firmed in wooden spoon markets early in 2018. Midway through the season they were well and truly on track. After nine rounds they sat mired to the bottom with the Eels and the Sea Eagles.
What followed was a revelation. Dean Pay threw caution to the wind and played the kids. Reimis Smith took up a wing spot and impressed from day one. Lachlan Lewis slotted into the halves and seemed to enjoy the time on the ball that all good playmakers have and Rhyse Martin became a bona fide first-grade player and goal-kicker.
Faith was also shown in Adam Elliott, whose year should be remembered for his cementing of a first-grade spot rather than the leering lens of a camera.
Whether Pay was confident with or concerned by his move is debatable, yet it worked and the Bulldogs rattled off four wins from their final six matches; skipping well clear of the bottom rung for an eventual 12th place finish.
The young debutantes had been lauded for some time by those keeping a keen eye on the reserves; a team that took out the then Intrust Super Premiership. Lewis, Smith and Martin had all lived up to the expectations of the Bulldogs' faithful and the success planted hopeful seeds for 2019.
Despite the recruitment of Corey Harawira-Naera, Sauaso Sue, and Dylan Napa in an effort to strengthen a forward pack needing punch, the Dogs still looked somewhat thin on the ground heading into 2019.
Even more so after conceding 76 points in the first two rounds and resuming a position on the bottom rung of the ladder.
Then, true to form, Pay played the same card. Jayden Okunbor and Nick Meaney were thrust into the starting 13 for the Round 3 clash with the Tigers and both ran for in excess of 170 metres. Martin, appearing on the outer with the coach, was recalled to provide some mobility in the forwards and some reliable goal kicking.
Ofahiki Ogden also made his 2019 debut from the bench and with an aggressive whack on Robbie Farah late in the game, showed the rest of the NRL world what Canterbury fans have been aware of for some time.
Over the past 20 odd games, Smith, Lewis, Martin, Okunbor, Ogden and Meaney have all debuted for the club. Pay has also put immense faith in the still raw Jeremy Marshall-King, Kerrod Holland and Elliott.
It all adds up to the most youthful and inexperienced squad in the NRL. Yet it is a formula that has worked twice now for Pay and should become his mantra as the season progresses. Recycling flawed technicians like Michael Lichaa and Marcelo Montoya just wasn’t working, nor was persisting with new recruit Christian Crichton or Will Hopoate at fullback.
It was time for change and in the week where Pay signed a contract extension, he played the kids, after sticking with the side he had planned to send onto the field in 2019 for just two weeks.
The next cab off the rank could well be Morgan Harper, another exciting prospect working his way through the lower grades and getting closer and closer to an NRL debut.
How sustainable the success of last week will be is an unknown, but for now, the Bulldogs appear to be a much more dangerous and better football team when Dean Pay backs his youth.