Delivered a brief to return Canterbury to the ranks of perennial NRL title contenders, the speed with which Bulldogs coach Des Hasler has achieved the feat has amazed even the club’s most ardent supporters.
One win away from a grand final appearance after two years in the September wilderness, two-time Bulldogs premiership-winning captain Steve Mortimer admitted to thinking it would take Hasler longer to weave his magic.
“I didn’t think it would happen this quick,” said Mortimer, remembering that Hasler was not even due at the club until the start of next season.
“But having met the players a few times and looked at the style of play that Des wants them to play, I can understand why we are where we are right now.”
Where they are is raging favourites heading into Saturday night’s preliminary final blockbuster at ANZ Stadium, which could attract an NRL finals record crowd in excess of 70,000.
Yet you only have to run your eye over the team sheet for the clash against the Rabbitohs to realise what Hasler has achieved.
Fullback Ben Barba was thought to be on the outer, with Hasler eyeing a move for his former star pupil Brett Stewart or Canberra ace Josh Dugan, but the coach instead turned Barba into the Dally M player of the year.
Centre Josh Morris was running around in reserve grade last year – now he’s considered the best centre in the country.
Halves Josh Reynolds and Kris Keating were said to be fighting it out for the one remaining halves position alongside Trent Hodkinson, only to perform so well that Reynolds is being touted as a potential NSW No.6.
The forwards, led by the enigmatic Frank Pritchard, the untested James Graham and raw Sam Kasiano have developed into one of the most skillful packs seen in years.
And it is enough to have Mortimer eyeing a bright future.
“I believe that the Bulldogs under Des now … it does look positive for the next (few) years,” Mortimer said.
“I guess we’re going to see, hopefully, where the Bulldogs are a major factor in the finals for a number of years to come under Des Hasler.”
But the Bulldogs were in the same situation just three years ago, playing off against Parramatta for a place in the 2009 grand final.
Things didn’t exactly kick on from there however, the Bulldogs finishing 13th in 2010 and ninth last season.
Only three players from the run-on side that night – Morris, skipper Michael Ennis and David Stagg – will play against South Sydney this weekend.
But as Bulldogs chief executive Todd Greenberg sees it, things are very different now to 2009.
“We had a lot of older guys in our roster, we went on and lost Luke Patten, Andrew Ryan, Brett Kimmorley and Hazem El Masri to retirement within 12 months of that,” Greenberg said.
“This year what I’m seeing is the emergence of a lot of younger guys – Josh Jackson, Josh Reynolds, Dale Finucane and even Ben Barba’s still very young, Sam Kasiano – these guys are all at the very front end of their NRL careers rather than at the back end of their NRL careers.”