With the Finals over and the November 1 contract deadline passed, we can officially declare the NRL’s silly season open.
Into the morass of gossip and conjecture, we will bring sanity, with the relaunch of Smart Signings, our dissection of where clubs are weak, what they need to improve and where they might find it. Expect stats, profiles and insights, with options that are available and realistic. Don’t expect rumours.
There’s a theory in recruitment that the best players that you have are the ones you have got. Coaching, not spending, is often the secret.
In 2023, Andrew Webster, who transformed the Warriors, did so with a side that wasn’t a million miles away from that which finished down the bottom the year before.
In 2022, Todd Payten did something similar with the Cowboys, using the off-season to improve those that he had a little more than he looked to bring outside faces in.
The Bulldogs, however, take a more maximalist approach. Phil Gould loves the limelight and nothing says limelight more than a rake of signings, each more fantastic than the last.
There was a fair bit of surgery needed after the Trent Barrett debacle, for sure, but even so, the rosters movements have been quite extreme.
Of the 17 that played his last game, Magic Round 2022, only Matt Burton, Max King, Chris Patolo and Josh Addo-Carr are still in the Top 30.
For reference, 15 of the 17 Cronulla Sharks that played that same weekend are still there 18 months on, and the two that aren’t, Aiden Tolman and Wade Graham, have retired.
One might question the utility – and we’ll get to the utilities – of keeping on a team that was rubbish, but rugby league is fundamentally a systems sport and it’s basically impossible to build a system when you keep changing the parts.
Cameron Ciraldo knows this, because he’s from the ultimate systems background at Penrith, and much as he refuted any attempts to paint it like this, he also knows it because of the hard experience of 2023, where he never got the chance to put a proper team on the field until it was too late.
The line on injuries is that everyone gets them, and that squads exist to cope with them, but the truth is that not everyone gets them at the same time and in the same position.
At the end of April, for example, Canterbury had a ridiculous number of forwards out, with starting front rowers, Max King and Luke Thompson, plus back-ups Franklin Pele and Patolo, as well as both starting wingers, Addo-Carr and Jacob Kiraz.
The Dogs likely needed a lot to go right to improve in Ciraldo’s first year, and largely, it didn’t – and often for reasons that weren’t really in their control.
Given that, the signing spree for 2024 does seem a bit strange. Canterbury have added several players who clearly strengthen their first 13, with Stephen Crichton and Josh Curran likely to step right in, but have also signed a huge raft of utility players without any great emphasis on quality or an articulated strategy of where they will play.
Blake Taaffe, for example, is in – but Crichton moved to Belmore to play fullback. Is Taaffe a back-up or does he play as a half? If he does, what about Toby Sexton, who they only signed late last year and looked pretty good in the 7.
Or Drew Hutchison, who is a half, a centre or a hooker, or Jaeman Salmon, who is a five eighth and a backrower, or Kurt Mann, the combination lock/half/whatever?
Bronson Xerri is also back and might be a starting centre, but he hasn’t played in years. Kiraz finished 2022 as a centre, and they extended Blake Wilson, a winger, and signed Jake Turpin, a back-up hooker to Reed Mahoney, who never goes off the field. Confused?
Despite adding 25 new players in 18 months, the Dogs are yet to solve the single biggest issue that they have had the entire time, which is a lack of forward power through the middle.
Between Luke Thompson’s constant injuries and Tevita Pangai jnr’s raging inconsistency, they’ve never found a solution in the starting pack and, as a result, were stone motherless last for both run metres gained last year.
It’s ironic, because under Barrett, the Dogs were actually great at getting up the park – they just never scored. Now, they can’t get up the park.
Defensively, they were third worst for metres conceded, second worst for line breaks conceded and absolutely the worst, by a margin, for tries conceded.
As it stands at time of writing, their forward rotation is Max King and Ryan Sutton, with Chris Patolo, Poasa Faamausili and Liam Knight, augmented by Isaac Matalavea-Booth and Kitione Kautoga.
King is a solid first grader, especially defensively. That’s the good part. After that, things go south.
Sutton is a decent bench option but was dropped last year and has done all his best work as a lock, not a prop.
Faamausili is onto his fifth NRL club in as many seasons and has never locked down an NRL jumper, while Knight hasn’t been a regular presence since 2020 at Souths.
Patolo is proven not to be good enough at this level as anything more than a backup and Matalavea-Booth nor Kautoga have one first grade game between them.
Smart Signings has never been easier. They need experienced middle, and fast.
The good news is that this is an area with options. The Dogs might well chance their arm in the Addin Fonua-Blake sweepstakes for 2025, but failing that, they can pick up real middle talent right now.
Jacob Saifiti isn’t quite at AFB’s level, but he’s far better than what the Bulldogs have and, if they could convince him to part with his brother at Newcastle, he’d be a superb fit for a team absolutely crying out for a leader.
The November 1 list also includes Tom Burgess, Braden Hamlin-Uele and Jordan McLean, all of whom would pretty much instantly become the best prop at the club overnight.
Hamlin-Uele is the best statistical pick: he’s fifth in the NRL for metres per run and provides a nice attacking-focussed counterpoint to King’s defensive solidity. It’s a pairing that could certainly work.
He’s also 28, 99 appearances into his career and entering his prime as a prop. The Dogs would offer him far more financially than the Sharks and should be busting their backsides to do so.
Burgess will likely have his eyes on a return to England come the end of the year, but McLean would not and might fancy returning to NSW for the final years of his career.
He’s 32 now, but still pumping out the numbers at North Queensland and should be on a list. As a statistical profile, he is a clone of King, who is already their best prop, but comes with a lot more experience. The Dogs would currently kill for a second Max King.
Smart Signings favourite Martin Taupau is also more than available and – for what it’s worth – actually lives pretty close to Belmore when he’s in Sydney. That’s not data, but it does go a long way when you need a culture leader, an old head and someone who add grunt to a weak middle.
If it’s not experience the Dogs are after, they’d do well to look at Parramatta, who can only offer bench and depth minutes to Jirah Momoisea and Ofahiki Ogden, both of whom would be upgrades on what they currently have.
The Eels want Addo-Carr, too, and getting him off their salary cap would allow for a better crack at AFB, without shedding too much given how many backs the Dogs have on the books.
They actually chatted about a deal for Ryan Matterson, though if the plan was to really aim at the stars then Reagan Campbell-Gillard, off in 2025, would be the better options.
The Dragons are rebuilding, too, and both Molo brothers would currently walk into the Bulldogs’ side. New coach Shane Flanagan has made it known that deals are there to be done, and he and Gould know each other well.
Amazingly, the Dogs still have Top 30 spots if they want to use them despite signing so many players, and it’s quite astounding that they have managed to add so many without really bolstering their weakest area at all.
There’s still time for that to change – and Gus loves a deal. Make it happen, Bulldogs.