In their last two games, the Bulldogs have played two of the most intimidating teams in the NRL, and in both games they’ve put on an incredible show. In some ways, Friday night’s victory was even more incredible than their win against the Storm in the Trials, not just because there’s always a different kind of buzz to the actual NRL season, but because it clarified just how far Manly have to go over the next eight months. If this showdown at Brookvale forced fans to reconsider what the Dogs were capable of, it forced them to reconsider the Sea Eagles even more. With a final score of 28-6, a lead of 22-0 at halftime, and such strong defence that Manly were only able to finally score in the 65th minute, it was an amazing start for Canterbury-Bankstown, especially considering that, like Manly, their star fullback is out for the moment. For the Dogs, it initially seemed as if the interchange cut might pose some problems, but any concerns turned out to be misplaced, with the team’s big forwards putting in a stellar performance behind James Graham and Aiden Tolman, who only set up two less runs than those of the entire Manly forward pack combined. If it it felt like a pang to see Graham taken off during the trial game, he couldn’t have made his return feel more emphatic and clinical, both as a forward and as a captain.
If anything, Manly seemed to take the new interchange rule harder, only managing to handle the Steeden for 40% of the first half. In particular, Marty Taupau and Steve Matai felt disoriented – they’re both big men with big personalities who need a structured team to help them contain and direct their attitude, but within the free-floating lack of cohesion that was Manly on Friday night they both found themselves put on suspension for stupid moves that didn’t serve any strategic purpose. More than any other players on the field, they were a reminder that this Manly lineup is a genuinely new outfit, still a hard thing to wrap your head around when it comes to what was until recently the most stable and insular team in the competition. Given that these were the players who traditionally contributed most to Brookvale’s fortress mentality, there was a strong sense in the air that this was no longer an inviolable venue, just as it often felt like we were witnessing a battle of coaches as much as a battle of teams, with Trent Barrett’s amateurism no match for Des Hasler’s vision and guidance. If there were ever a moment in Manly’s history that needed a tried-and-tested coach for continuity, then it has been this transition from the 2015 to the 2016 season, and the combination of new players and new coach came off about as poorly as you might expect.
In particular, Dylan Walker stuck out like a sore thumb at five-eighth. Still playing more or less as a centre, he never synced up with DCE, which seemed to make the Sea Eagles’ defeat all the more painful, since there’s something singularly disheartening about seeing a top-tier halfback paired wiith a five-eighth who can’t handle him, just as Manly’s own history of stalwart halves pairs seemed to make this lopsided effort particularly pointed and painful. On the other side of the ball, however, Josh Reynolds and Moses Mbye are really starting to shine. I never thought I’d say it, but maybe Canterbury-Bankstown will get over the departure of Trent Hodkinson quicker than I was expecting, with Reynolds and Mbye managing to rack up four try assists between them, not a bad result for a halves outfit that have only paired up for an entire game eight times before.
While Mbye has certainly found his feet in a pretty accelerated way, a lot of that organisation comes down to Reynolds, who seems to have found a new kind of calm in the wake of Hodkinson’s departure, subsuming his niggly side into a new kind of maturity that makes him a logical successor to Michael Ennis and a clear contender for captain in years to come. When they were playing together, Hodkinson always came off as the more mature one, a bit like an older brother, but now that he’s left home Reynolds has been forced to step up and take on a new kind of commitment and dedication. On the field, as well, Reynolds is starting to feel like a leader, helping set up Sam Perrett’s first try with Graham with an assurance and agility that makes me wonder whether the two of these might become co-captains at some point as well. At the same time, the fact that Hodkinson only played up until Round 25 last year has given Reynolds a bit more time to come into his own in the leadup to this season, as well as to develop his rapport with Mbye, with the result that their debut on Friday night felt closer to a fully-formed halves pair than many people were expecting – especially in comparison to Walker and DCE’s combination.
For all that Reynolds has matured and Graham has returned, however, a lot of the credit has to go to Des Hasler’s coaching vision. Time and again, Des manages to find a way to turn even the most unpromising players and situations to his advantage. Like most Dogs fans, I was something of a naysayer when he convinced Canterbury-Bankstown to trade Tim Lafai to Will Hopoate, but even Hoppa put in a pretty good performance on Friday night, bringing in the last try to make the Dogs’ victory feel just that little more decisive. Combined with Josh Morris’ 100th try – aided by Mbye – eight minutes before half time, the whole Bulldogs performance had an emphatic and decisive quality that already makes them feel like final contenders, especially given that Brett Morris is not even back on the field yet. In the meantime, Manly need to up their game, although perhaps this will provide them with the impetus they require. Once upon a time, it felt outrageous to think of DCE heading to the Titans, but now Manly feels almost as anonymous or as unformed as the Titans – whether they make it or break it, 2016 is going to be partly defined by the emergence of this new team, and it’s going to be fascinating to watch that happen.