Canterbury’s finals hopes could hinge on the match fitness of one of the game’s most damaging players. Check out our deep dive into the Bulldogs’ hopes for 2023.
They signed the hottest coach-in-waiting and two of the biggest recruits of the off-season, but can Canterbury make it all work on the field?
Here’s everything you need to know about the Bulldogs ahead of the 2023 NRL season kick off in a News Corp exclusive club-by-club deep dive series.
2022 RICH 100 reps: 6
Tevita Pangai Jr (12, $925k), Luke Thompson (39, $750k), Jack Hetherington (85, $550k), Matt Burton (82, $550k), Josh Addo-Carr (93, $500k) and Corey Allan (94, $500k).
FREE AGENCY WRAP
The drums are beating in Belmore on the back of the competition’s most hotly-anticipated recruitment drives.
The Dogs get an A rating for their 2023 recruits with Eels grand final hooker Reed Mahoney set to solve the club’s dummy-half issue that has plagued them ever since Michael Ennis was let go in 2015.
Equally as significant is the signing of the game’s most damaging backrower Viliame Kikau. He doesn’t only create carnage with the ball in his hand, but it’s what he can provide for his support men and more importantly, in defence, which is a mandatory area of improvement for the Dogs.
Arguably the club’s most important signing in Canterbury’s roster rebuild was sealed in early January when star playmaker Matt Burton extended his stay at Belmore until the end of season 2027.
Add more starch in the pack with ex-Raiders prop Ryan Sutton and the capable Andrew Davey and Canterbury should be laying an even greater platform than last season for Matt Burton to launch his aerial raids.
COACH STATUS: CAMERON CIRALDO (2027)
Cameron Ciraldo arrives at Belmore after a deliberately patient approach towards becoming an NRL coach and it was GM of football Phil Gould who wore the rookie down to sign.
Ciraldo is huge on building trust and bonds within his playing ranks, so let’s see how tight this squad becomes. Ciraldo’s first season will also be about adopting an identity for the Dogs following a five-year period of mass roster and coach changes. The appointment of club legend Andrew Ryan as a cultural driver speaks to that.
Defence will be the absolute focus of every performance and key to Ciraldo’s arrival to the big stage is the fitness of his players, which is being led by former Rabbitohs and Roosters head of high performance Travis Touma.
Safety Rating: A
Timing is everything in rugby league and the Dogs lean depth in their outside backs could provide Skelton, a former Australian rugby sevens player, his taste of NRL in 2023. Skelton is aiming to follow in the footsteps of a former sevens teammate, Cronulla’s Lachlan Miller. Seriously powerful, Skelton is a hard-running centre, who joined the Dogs on a train and trial contract at the end of last season. He wasted little time displaying glimpses of his promise in the NSW Cup with three tries in six games. Clearly he still has a lot to learn to perfect the cross-code switch, but the good judges suggest his shot could come in 2023.
WHO TAKES THE NEXT STEP?
Jacob Kiraz. Canterbury’s 2022 Rookie of the Year is on a trajectory that should have every Dogs fan excited. In his rookie season, Kiraz scored six tries in 14 games on the wing after playing one game, in his debut, at centre.
The local junior finished the year with the invaluable experience of playing fullback for Lebanon in a quarter-final clash against Australia. The 20-year old has since made no secret that he wants to be wearing the Dogs No. 1 in the future. Kiraz faces competition from 2022 fullback Jake Averillo for the jersey, but should the young talent continue to apply pressure through his performances, he could ultimately halt the Dogs powerbrokers from making a big-money play for a fullback.
Kiraz is contracted to the Dogs until 2024, but should he further his footy in 2023, watch for the Dogs to try and take him off the market and extend his future at Belmore.
THREE BURNING ISSUES
1. Who is the captain of the Kennel?
The shock retirement of club captain and forward pack mainstay Josh Jackson has left a leadership void at the Dogs. Jackson may have been tapering in his influence with the ball, but he was immense inside the dressing room as a voice of reason, experience and respect. Who steps up in his absence, will be critical. Without a senior figure and obvious replacement as captain, a leadership team of Luke Thompson, Josh Addo-Carr, Matt Burton and Reed Mahoney must emerge as the figureheads that others follow.
2. The 1,6,7 and 9
The Dogs will boast their best spine in several seasons with the arrival of Reed Mahoney from Parramatta. That class could prove crucial in servicing Kyle Flanagan. Flanagan has impressed the Dogs coaching staff with his focus, fitness levels and desire so far this pre-season. Unlike this time last year, it seems Flanagan is being backed to wear the No. 7 in round one. Similarly, Jake Averillo has spent the entire pre-season at fullback, and not at centre or in the halves. Key will be Matt Burton, who despite his obvious talent, won’t have much time to form combinations following his recovery from a World Cup lay-off.
3. Can TPJ fire for Dogs?
The best of Tevita Pangai Jr could prove season-defining for Canterbury. The power forward has talked up a big game in wanting to show his best for the club in 2023. He has vowed to be in the best shape of his career. If Pangai Jr can be the devastating forward he wants to be, it could be enough to drive the Dogs to the finals.
Undeniably the big improvers of 2023 with game-influencing inclusions of Reed Mahoney and Viliame Kikau. Their entire club-wide mentality shift towards a defensive mindset under new coach Cameron Ciraldo will also be significant. Finals should be the goal, but the concern is their lack of depth and leadership when the going gets tough. Between 9th and 12th.
Finish the last five years
Minor premiership: $26
To make grand final: $10
Top four: $5
Top eight: $2.10
Most losses: $26
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Originally published as NRL team previews 2023: Bulldogs free agency wrap, crystal ball, predictions
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