The resignation of Canterbury Bulldogs coach Trent Barrett came as little surprise given his horrendous winning record. Whether he was pushed or it came of his own accord is immaterial at this point.
But it provides a look at the approach the club will be taking as it rebuilds its crumbling presence.
In Trent Barrett they went with a largely inexperienced head coach with a reputation as a good assistant. His tenure at Manly was chaotic and his 40 percent win rate was well below expectations given his predecessor Geoff Toovey managed to win 58 percent of his games and Des Hasler has since managed a 52 percent win rate during his second stint at the club.
The presence of Phil Gould could be seen as both a help and a hindrance. He’s no doubt assisted in improving the Bulldogs’ junior pathways, while he’s also able to use his connections to recruit players.
But having someone such as Gould who effectively generates his own media coverage means the spotlight is forever on the club. The club is also dealing with continued boardroom instability.
As Jack Gibson would say, winning starts in the front office, and the Canterbury front office is far from a well-oiled machine at the moment.
Also rebuilding from once stellar heights are the Brisbane Broncos and, despite a rocky start in 2021, they appear set to be in finals contention later this year.
Studying the two, there are obviously different approaches pursuing the same outcome.
The Bulldogs bet heavily on a head coach who had a tough time at his previous club but still retained plenty of admirers off the field for his assistant coaching talents.
The Broncos meanwhile went for Kevin Walters who, whilst never coaching before at NRL level, had coached in the State of Origin arena, but was also a “Broncos man”.
Rugby league has a tendency to be incredibly insular, often to its own detriment, but when a club is rebuilding and is seen to have lost its identity, sometimes a hometown hero can provide the boost it needs.
Brad Arthur for instance, is Parramatta through and through. His family has been following the club since its inception and he was an Eels junior. When times were tough in 2016, the club needed someone wholly committed to the cause and now it’s reaping the rewards.
The Bulldogs long relied on family connections through the Moore family during the 1970s, 80s, 90s and 2000s.
It worked until it didn’t, with Kevin Moore the last of that lineage to be head coach. Even then they have had alumni such as Jim Dymock and Dean Pay also in the hot seat.
Brisbane meanwhile have only ever been successful under Wayne Bennett.
In 23 seasons under Bennett, the club only failed to reach the finals twice. Once in 1988 and once in 1991. They won six premierships from seven grand finals.
In the nine completed seasons without Bennett, they missed the finals four times with a wooden spoon and no grand final appearances.
Now they turn to Kevin Walters to right the ship and at the time of writing, he seems to be on track.
Key to any successful rebuild, or even building from the ground up, is effective recruitment. Teams can either look for instant success by recruiting some big name players that cost a bucket of money.
Or they can look to their junior systems to build a more solid base with one or two high profile recruits to balance out the squad and add some touch.
Some opt for a mix of both.
The Dogs, even going back to Des Hasler, have spent big quite often. In recent years it has hurt them. They have poured far too much money into too few players.
They also seem to be continuing that trend following the acquisitions of Matt Burton and Josh Addo-Carr by also throwing big money at Viliame Kikau and Reed Mahoney. Time will tell if it is money well spent.
They have promoted some from within, but often seemingly out of necessity rather than juniors beating down the first grade door.
Brisbane though, have looked heavily to their juniors, promoting players such as Pat Carrigan, Selwyn Cobbo, Tesi Niu, Jordan Riki, Tom Flegler, Kobe Hetherington, Kotoni Staggs, Herbie Farnworth and Payne Haas over the past few seasons. All while letting Xavier Coates and Jamayne Isaako depart.
Not one of those players is over the age of 25.
To add some experience they went and recruited premiership winners Adam Reynolds and Kurt Capewell.
Young gun or legend?
Mike Meehall Wood has written about Reynolds’ impact at Brisbane and how he is the right player at the right time for the Broncos.
In an attacking sense, he has been superb for Brisbane. In 2021 Brisbane were 14th for tries per match with 3.2. After 11 rounds in 2022, they are eighth with 3.6 tries.
That’s also correlated by the fact the Broncos are averaging 21.2 points per game, up from 18.6 last season.
A 0.4 try improvement doesn’t sound like much, but keep in mind this is comparing 2022 to the 2021 speed ball V’landys rules. For comparison, the Storm have regressed by 0.3 tries per game.
The Panthers are an anomaly improving by 0.5 tries per game on top of the steroid-like game that was played last year.
Kevin Walters has also mentioned that Reynolds’ kicking game has also allowed the Broncos to improve defensively.
Brisbane are actually second to only Parramatta for average number of kick metres per game, booting the ball 575.9 metres on average.
Which is a nearly 30 metre improvement on last year when they were managing 548.5 metres per game.
By getting the ball down field, they aren’t relying on what can still be weak goal line defence to keep them in matches.
In 2022, Brisbane are conceding 16.4 points per game, a 12 point improvement considering they were conceding 28.9 points per game in 2021.
The Bulldogs though, aren’t trending the same way. They’re actually heading down hill.
As can be seen in the above graphs, the Dogs have dropped from 2.5 tries per game last season, to just 2 tries per game this year.
Their kick metres, despite Matt Burton’s towering boot, has dropped from 588.3 metres per game, to 547.6 metres.
And their points sit at a meagre 10.7 per game compared with 14.2 last year.
The Dogs have improved by six points overall defensively. Down from 29.5 points per game conceded in 2021 to 23.3 this year.
For both Brisbane and the Bulldogs’ defensive improvements last year’s attacking free-for-all must also be taken into consideration.
Although Brisbane’s shut out of Manly in round 10, as well as grinding victories against Cronulla and the Rabbitohs shows some defensive resilience, against the top four they’ve leaked points.
The Dogs started the season relatively strongly, conceding only 11 points per game across the first three rounds. But that defensive resolve quickly evaporated, conceding an average of 36.5 points per game from round four to round seven.
The recruitments of Reynolds and Burton respectively aren’t solely responsible for these statistical changes, but inferences can be drawn from Brisbane’s recruitment of a premiership winning halfback, and the Bulldogs’ recruitment of a green but talented youngster.
Reynolds knows what it takes to win, and the Broncos of 2021 needed that sort of direction. They were in a lot of game until the final quarter but their inability to control field position and possession led to them crumbling.
Meanwhile the Dogs are playing a slightly longer game and hoping their raft of relatively young recruits will lead to a prolonged period of improvement and eventually success even if they are well off it right now.
Red Zone Struggles
Again I turn to Mike Meehall Wood who kicked the social media hornet’s nest earlier in the year when he quizzed Trent Barrett on Kyle Flanagan’s lack of ball, particularly in attacking field position.
The Dogs, despite their struggles, actually visit their attack 20 metre zone fairly regularly. They rank 10th for tackles in the opposition 20 with 27.4 per game.
The Broncos meanwhile are dead last with 23.2 tackles per game.
Brisbane though have crossed for 46 tries this season, putting them in eighth. The Dogs? Well, they’re last with just 26 tries.
The men from Red Hill also possess a long range threat through Selwyn Cobbo, while Kotoni Staggs can also break the line from distance.
Aside from Josh Addo-Carr whose six try return so far this season is well down on his usual standards, the Dogs don’t possess that sort of long range threat.
The Broncos, with Reynolds doing most of the goal kicking, also have the best conversion percentage, kicking at 83 percent this season. Canterbury has the worst at 61 percent.
In other words, Brisbane go up in sixes, whereas Canterbury only go up by converted tries just over half the time. For a side that struggles to score tries in the first place, they can ill afford to miss conversions.
Through the middle
The Broncos possess one out and out star middle forward in Payne Haas, although Pat Carrigan has seemingly picked himself back up following his ACL injury and has now been selected for Queensland.
The Bulldogs have spent big money on Luke Thompson, but don’t really possess a middle enforcer.
Brisbane averages 1,439 metres per match from 156 carries, equating to 9.2 metres per carry. The Bulldogs meanwhile only manage 1,254 metres per match from 150 carries, equating to 8.3 metres per carry.
Both sides like a one pass hitup with the Broncos fifth at 73.1 per match, while the Dogs are sixth at 69.6 per match.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with one pass hitups. The Eels and Panthers are second and third respectively for that stat.
However they also possess a forward pack capable of barging down the field relatively comfortably.
There’s more than one way to skin the metreage cat though, given the Roosters rank 14th for one pass hit ups, yet sit seventh for average run metres.
Generally, if you don’t make metres through pure hitups, you look for quick shifts to the edges, which the Roosters do well. They’re sixth for general play passes with 107.3 per game.
The Bulldogs meanwhile sit 12th with 94.9 per match, while the Broncos are at 87.9 per match.
What this means is that they keep the ball in the middle of the field a lot, without shifting the ball regularly. That makes it hard to really dominate opponents who control field position.
Who would you rather be?
Well, the Broncos are the obvious answer. They’re in the top four halfway through the season, have some exceptionally talented juniors and a couple of Origin players.
They have made statistical improvements on the previous two seasons and while they remain a work in progress in some aspects, they seemingly have a squad capable of improving in those areas.
The Kevolution was originally a meme, but it is here and actually happening.
If Payne Haas were to leave, it would be heavy hit to the side and the job he is doing, but the Broncos still possess a firm base to work off.
For the Bulldogs, well little has improved on last season. Their coach originally tasked with the rebuild is gone and they have Mick Potter as interim.
A new coach generally only invites an improvement of a solitary win compared with the previous season, so even someone such as Shane Flanagan would be up against it next year.
They have new recruits on the way but what they truly lack is an on-field general capable of flipping the field, exploiting opportunities in the opposition 20 and a forward pack that can take pressure off their backline.
Everything is coming up Brisbane.
But in Belmore, things will seemingly get worse before they get better.
History beckons for the Parramatta Eels as they head into a preliminary final against the heavily favoured North Queensland Cowboys.
Recalling a legendary player or former coach is often tempting for a club trying to recapture former glory. But rarely does it work, and often it tarnishes the coach’s legacy.
Harry Grant has filled the Melbourne Storm boots of Cameron Smith and seems to be taking the hooking position to the next level.