The Canterbury Bulldogs have been on an eyebrow-raising signing spree during the off-season, but it's now time to find out exactly how the pieces of the puzzle gel together.

Despite most fans and pundits telling anyone who would listen that Canterbury needed forwards, their off-season recruitment spree has been highlighted by a number of utilities, which make this one of the competition's toughest sides to pick for 2024.

While the utilities have had eyebrows raised, the Bulldogs have also signed Stephen Crichton on fullback money from the Penrith Panthers and Josh Curran from the New Zealand Warriors after he was granted a release from the remainder of his contract in Auckland late in the off-season.

Canterbury are coming off a lean run and Cameron Ciraldo's second season in charge must be better than his first.

Despite the club telling anyone who will listen that the utilities all have roles to play, here is how we are tipping they will line up in 2024.

Recruitment report

Ins: Stephen Crichton (Penrith Panthers, 2027), Josh Curran (New Zealand Warriors, 2025), Poasa Faamausili (The Dolphins, 2025), Drew Hutchison (Sydney Roosters, 2025), Kurt Mann (Newcastle Knights, 2025), Jaeman Salmon (Penrith Panthers, 2025), Blake Taaffe (South Sydney Rabbitohs, 2025), Connor Tracey (Cronulla Sharks, 2026), Jake Turpin (Sydney Roosters, 2025), Mitchell Woods (2027), Bronson Xerri (2025)

NRL Pre-Season Challenge Rd 1 - Bulldogs v Storm

Outs: Paul Alamoti (Penrith Panthers), Jake Averillo (The Dolphins), Fa'amanu Brown (Hull FC), Brandon Clarke (released), Andrew Davey (retired), Raymond Faitala-Mariner (St George Illawarra Dragons), Kyle Flanagan (St George Illawarra Dragons), Michael Gabrael (Cronulla Sharks), Jayden Okunbor (Hull FC), Tevita Pangai Junior (retired), Franklin Pele (Hull FC), Josh Reynolds (retired), Luke Thompson (Wigan Warriors), Corey Waddell (Manly Sea Eagles)

Re-signed: Matt Burton (2027), Samuel Hughes (2024), Jacob Kiraz (2027), Joseph O'Neill (2024), Chris Patolo (2024), Jacob Preston (2027), Blake Wilson (2025)

Off-contract at the end of 2024: Bailey Biondi-Odo, Samuel Hughes, Max King, Liam Knight, Joseph O'Neill, Chris Patolo, Hayze Perham, Toby Sexton, Jeral Skelton, Jackson Topine

Full squad

Josh Addo-Carr, Bailey Biondi-Odo, Matt Burton, Stephen Crichton, Josh Curran, Samuel Hughes, Drew Hutchison, Kitione Kautoga, Viliame Kikau, Max King, Jacob Kiraz, Liam Knight, Reed Mahoney, Kurt Mann, Karl Oloapu, Chris Patolo, Hayze Perham, Jacob Preston, Jaeman Salmon, Toby Sexton, Jeral Skelton, Ryan Sutton, Blake Taaffe, Jackson Topine, Connor Tracey, Jake Turpin, Blake Wilson, Bronson Xerri

Supplementary contracts: Poasa Faamausili, Bailey Hayward, Kurtis Morrin, Joseph O'Neill, Jordan Samrani, Mitchell Woods

For a full profile of every contracted player, download Zero Tackle's 2024 NRL season guide for FREE!

Who plays where?

If there was ever any real doubt around Stephen Crichton's role in this side, it was all but extinguished during the week when the club confirmed he was taking over as captain.

That means he will indeed run out during Round 1 wearing the number one jersey, and, in all probability, play there everytime he is fit this season.

There are certainly other options if form or injuries do become a problem for the ex-Panther, with Blake Taaffe the best of those after making the switch from the South Sydney Rabbitohs during the off-season. Another off-season recruit in the utility department in Connor Tracey can also play at the back, as can Hayze Perham and Jacob Kiraz.

There are plenty of options here for the blue and white, but they will be hoping they never have to use any of them beyond Crichton.

The Bulldogs, as one might expect when a team signs so many backs through the off-season, are flush with options to slot in on the wing.

Josh Addo-Carr is the guaranteed starting option on the wing for Canterbury. Despite not living up to his form at the Storm, he has been strong in a struggling team during his time at Belmore, and has continued to find the tryline with regularity.

On the other wing should be Jacob Kiraz. While he would likely have his eye set on a move to either centre or fullback, he will likely have to continue biding his time on the wing this year.

Not that it's a bad thing for the Bulldogs - he has been excellent during his time at first-grade and the Lebanese international will continue that in 2024.

Blake Wilson, who was excellent after debuting next year, leads the list of options who will sit just outside the first-grade side, while young gun Jeral Skelton will continue to impress in the NSW Cup as he waits for an opportunity. Utility Connor Tracey and Hayze Perham can also line up on the wing rounding out Canterbury's depth.

NRL Rd 1 - Sea Eagles v Bulldogs

Centre is another position where Canterbury have too many chefs in the kitchen, but also a fairly clear cut top two to play the positions.

With Crichton playing fullback (and therefore freeing up a centre spot), and Matt Burton likely to continue in the halves, it means the rest of the players in line for the centre positions can fight it out.

What is clear is that Canterbury have a new combination here after Paul Alamoti and Jake Averillo both departed the club during the off-season.

Bronson Xerri has been excellent in the trials and should slot in on one side of thre park, while Connor Tracey is likely to run out in the other three-quarter jersey.

Given the depth across the backline, expect any changes here to see Jacob Kiraz be the first man to shift to centre with a replacement winger coming into the side, while Drew Hutchison, Hayze Perham and Jeral Skelton are both options to come directly into the centres if need be.

Provided coach Cameron Ciraldo doesn't pull a major surprise, Matt Burton will be the Bulldogs' number six moving forward, although there is little doubt he needs to find an uptick in form compared to what he produced last year if he wants to be there long-term.

The biggest direct competition for Burton is Blake Taaffe, who is unlikely to play at the back and instead will focus his energies on gaining Burton's jersey.

At number seven, it seems a two-way race between Toby Sexton and Drew Hutchison, with Sexton, who arrived from the Titans in the middle of 2023, likely having his nose in the lead.

Hutchison is of course a utility and could line up off the bench or at centre, but he could also yet be considered for the number six jersey if Burton does fall out of favour.

Young development players Mitchell Woods and Bailey Hayward are likely the other options to be considered in the halves for the Bulldogs, with Karl Oloapu out for the season with a neck injury.

Middle forwards
The engine room is likely to be the biggest issue for the Bulldogs this year, with a lack of depth after a number of off-season departures, headlined by the 'retired' Tevita Pangai Junior.

Max King will again be looked at to provide the go forward from prop in what will need to be another strong season for the experienced forward.

He is likely to be joined up front by Englishman Ryan Sutton, while Josh Curran, who made the switch from the New Zealand Warriors, surely is the man thrown the number 13 jersey by Cameron Ciraldo given his work ethic, footwork and ball-playing ability.

Kurt Mann may also be considered at lock, but would be better utilised coming off the bench where he can split his time between the hooker and lock roles.

Samuel Hughes has been widely tipped for a breakout season and will be among the key rotation players alongside ex-South Sydney player Liam Knight, while the Bulldogs also have the likes of Kitione Kautoga and Chris Patolo will be in the back-up department for Canterbury.

At hooker, there is little to no doubt that ex-captain Reed Mahoney will take the reigns once again in a season where he must find improvement after struggling during his first season away from the Parramatta Eels.

Mahoney will be backed up by Jake Turpin, who arrives at the club from the Sydney Roosters with a major point to prove.

Kurt Mann is another option in the number nine for the Bulldogs after impressing there at the Knights last year following the season-ending injury to Jayden Brailey.

Edge forwards
On the edge, it's another easy selection, with Viliame Kikau in his second season as a Bulldog to feature alongside last year's boom rookie Jacob Preston.

Preston, in all likelihood, would have won the Dally M Rookie of the Year award if not for a late-season suspension that deemed him ineligible.

Jaeman Salmon, who arrived from the Panthers during the off-season, has made it clear he will fight for a position in the second row and should be the first backup option for the starting duo.

Outside of that, there is a real lack of depth in the second row for the Bulldogs, with Jackson Topine the only other recognised edge forward in the Top 30.

The players coming off the bench in Canterbury's Best 17 shouldn't really come as a major surprise.

Kurt Mann is the key utility in the forwards who can spend time at hooker but also slot in across the backline as needed and should wear the number 14.

Jaeman Salmon has become a solid edge forward who still has ability in the backline too and should feature.

The other two positions must be reserved for middle forwards, with Samuel Hughes surely the first, and Liam Knight the other. Given the lack of depth, Canterbury has in their forwards, it seems almost set in stone, although the number of utilities means things could certainly take a different shape when Cameron Ciraldo unveils his first side for the season.

The best 17

1. Stephen Crichton
2. Josh Addo-Carr
3. Connor Tracey
4. Bronson Xerri
5. Jacob Kiraz
6. Matt Burton
7. Toby Sexton
8. Max King
9. Reed Mahoney
10. Ryan Sutton
11. Viliame Kikau
12. Jacob Preston
13. Josh Curran

14. Kurt Mann
15. Jaeman Salmon
16. Samuel Hughes
17. Liam Knight

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