People in rugby league seem to be losing a lot of things lately.
Jason Taylor lost the support of the Wests Tigers board and then his job. Wayne Bennett has apparently lost his aura and his dressing-room. Nathan Brown would be losing his hair if he had any left to lose.
The Bulldogs just keep losing matches. They’ve lost seven of their past eight. Their 36-0 loss to Manly at Fortress Lottoland on Saturday afternoon wasn’t so much a loss as a humiliation.
It was shanking your drive on the first tee in front of a dozen or so people. It was cheering home the wrong horse. It was the walk of shame on a Sunday morning.
There’s quite a few angry Bulldogs fans out there who will tell you Des Hasler must lose his job, and if he doesn’t the club will start losing their memberships.
The Bulldogs don’t need to lose the coach. They need to find a leader.
It seems like a strange thing to say when they have an angry red-headed captain in James Graham who can almost single-handedly drag his side back into matches with one angry run, one angry tackle, one angry exchange with the referee, one angry howl at the moon before eating Billy Slater’s ears.
But that angry man who as a teenager refined his running style by charging at garage doors just isn’t there at the moment. Indeed, none of the Bulldogs are playing angry.
They don’t have a cranky forward – and certainly not a playmaker – who will bark at his teammates to follow his lead as he rips the opposition a proverbial new one. Against Manly, the best they could do was David Klemmer face-slapping halfback Daly Cherry-Evans in frustration.
This isn’t an attack on Graham or the side’s commitment. It doesn’t mean they don’t respect the coach. But the fabled “Dogs of War” have put their guns back in the holster. Most of their once-feared pack just seem like frustrated halfbacks.
Every successful team relies on a player to drag their side into the streetfight but at a club like Canterbury-Bankstown it’s in the woodwork. It’s in their DNA.
Steve Mortimer, Terry Lamb, Peter Kelly and any number of hard-headed forwards all sailed close to the line of aggression and legality but left opposing sides without any doubt about who they were playing.
Oh how I loved watching Chris Mortimer play in the 1980s, even against my own team, and then you hear his former teammates talk about him and you understand why.
They tell you he had a signature instruction to those standing next to him in the defensive line and the politically correct should look away now: “Take your f—ing skirts off. This is how you rip into them.”
And then he did.
Simple stuff, but effective nonetheless. When was the last time the Bulldogs gave away a penalty in anger, just to prove a point?
Far better students of the game than this one have had their say on what’s wrong with the Bulldogs and the universal observation is they are “playing slow”.
It’s reflected in the yardage of the men who should have the most.
In 2014, Graham was averaging 150 metres a game. Last year, he was churning through 167 a game. So far this year, just 111.
His fellow prop, Aiden Tolman, is averaging 100m a game. Tolman’s new three-year deal has raised as many eyebrows as Hasler’s persistence with hooker Michael Lichaa. His persistence with Josh Reynolds. With Moses Mbye.
With a style of play that starts and ends with a quick play-the-ball and one that looked revolutionary when the Bulldogs were making grand finals a few years ago but now seems as fluid as porridge.
The frustrating thing for Dogs fans is these are issues that have been identified for the best part of a year.
When the Bulldogs lost to the Panthers in the first week of the finals last year, some of their directors – including chairman Ray Dib – were watching from a private suite at Allianz Stadium.
It was interesting to be a fly on the wall that day. The look on their faces at fulltime told the story: something had to change.
But will it?
I was told on Friday afternoon that an extension on Hasler’s contract was basically done. He had conceded that he had to change, that he had to embrace that unmistakable Bulldogs DNA we’ve been talking about, and that he wasn’t the central figure at the club as he was at Manly and as he has been at Belmore in recent years spending millions on his football department.
Despite the loss to the Sea Eagles, the feeling I’m getting is that Hasler is more likely to be re-signed than not.
Bennett’s Broncos may well flog them at ANZ Stadium on Thursday night but Hasler has been given ample time to secure a few wins and a few more years at Belmore.
Dib’s decision to get on the front foot and do the rounds with selected media on Sunday was telling.
A shrewd operator who doesn’t usually broadcast what he’s thinking, Dib told Fairfax Media: “We’ve stuck to our plan and we’re not going to expedite a decision early. We’re not going to be pushed. We’re not a reactive board so we’ll stick to our plan.”
But Hasler cannot deny he’s on shaky ground. He fronted his first media conference at the start of this season and declared reports about his potential demise as “fake news”. He mustn’t be talking to the very nervous board members who wanted him gone for this season.
Des is my favourite person in rugby league. His eccentricity keeps reporters in a job. Although it’s probably time for both him and the Bulldogs to go in separate directions, he still has an ocean of football knowledge and experience.
That’s something you never lose.
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