A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Canterbury Bulldogs
At the start of the year, before the coronavirus pandemic and indeed time itself, I wrote
The Bulldogs are behind, way behind… the Bulldogs either need significant development out of their relatively young squad or to land some signatures. Neither seem likely, especially as the club is likely to still be paying freight on players from the Castle-Hasler era and the current squad do not have the track record to suggest any superstars are emerging (perhaps Renouf To’omaga excepted). The players signed to development contracts do not have particularly impressive stats from the NSW Cup. With last year’s significant outperformance of the fundamentals, reversion to mean would likely mean a wooden spoon.
That turned out to be a relatively prescient summation of the 2020 Bulldogs season. Had it not been for Seibold’s Broncos, Canterbury absolutely would have finished last. Considering that this season featured a team on a permanent road trip, that is a damning indictment.
Canterbury didn’t win very many games on account of not being very good at football. They tried for a while, did not deliver results and like a number of clubs this season, fired their coach.
Despite finishing eleventh with a 10-14 record in 2017, the club’s situation off-field was something of a disaster. A clean out ensued in 2018, which delivered a 8-16 season that was above expectations. 2019 saw consolidation at 10-14 and many had the Dogs primed to take the next step in 2020 towards a winning record. Instead, they went backwards.
I think it’s worth taking a closer look at this narrative, partly because there’s little to be gained from an in-depth analysis of their on-field performance this year (it was not good, 1 to 17) and partly because it’s what set expectations for this and next season.
Pythagorean expectation does a reasonable job of estimating a team’s win-loss record using for and against. The advantage of using Pythag is that it has a finer resolution on team performance than the binary of win-loss records. Typically, actual wins and wins as estimated by Pythagorean expectation are expected to be close over the course of the season, as shown between 2004 and 2012 in the above.
When the two diverge, we usually attribute this to luck and say teams are either over- or under-performing their Pythagorean expectation. This is important to note because lucky seasons, where teams outperform, tend to be followed by unlucky seasons, where teams underperform, and vice versa. The actual win-loss record can mask the team’s underlying quality and set unrealistic expectations moving forward.
2017 was bang on: 10 actual wins with 9.4 Pythagorean wins. In 2018, the team underperformed (8 actual, 10.8 Pythag) followed by an outperformance in 2019 (10 actual, 7.8 Pythag) and then underperformance again in 2020 (3 actual, 5.0 Pythag). In other words, the Bulldogs actually got worse, declining from 10.8 to 5.0 Pythag wins from 2018 to 2020. When people talk about Canterbury not improving under Dean Pay, this is what they mean.
Pay managed to get the team fired up to win some games at the back end of 2018. This gave the playing group self-belief and the club some media hype going in to the next season. Further belief/hype was generated off the back of more wins in garbage time in 2019 but this time, the performance was based on shaky fundamentals. By this season, the playing group sensed that Pay was not able to drive them to new heights and did not commit like they had in previous years, leading to an absence of the plucky wins that had defined the previous two seasons and underperforming their Pythag.
With Pay now gone, we may well see a bounce back in 2021 with an outperformance, but it seems unlikely we’ll see a recovery like 2009.
At some point, someone is going to point out that the post-Castle board continue to make very bad decisions on behalf of the Bulldogs. God only knows what Trent Barrett said in his interview with the club to be given a second chance as a head coach after one of the most disastrous tenures in the NRL era at Manly. Signing Nick Cotric on big bucks doesn’t solve any of the team’s fundamental problems. The players that have been linked with the club do not inspire confidence.
We’re not that long removed from a Bulldogs premiership in the NSW Cup. The junior lights of the 2018 campaign – Renouf Toomaga, Reimis Smith, Jayden Okunbor, Ofahiki Ogden, Rhyse Martin and Lachlan Lewis – have all made it to first grade and where an impression has been made, it’s only because there was nothing else to distract viewers. Morgan Harper, their best player by WARG in the 2019 reserve squad, has now played more first grade games for Manly than Canterbury. Among other things, the club needs to consider how to better secure brighter talents or better develop the talents that they do have. Dean Pay clearly wasn’t the man to ensure that happened as players did not appear to improve under his leadership. I don’t have a lot of confidence that Trent Barrett can do any better but I’ve been wrong before.
The club then has few options to improve its genuinely lack lustre roster. The Bulldogs currently occupy a space on the market where they will be regularly linked with fringe-rep players who are seeking a pay rise from their current employers. Despite this being a patently obvious bargaining tactic, some talented players will inevitably come across to seek their filthy lucre. But it has been demonstrated time and time again that this is not a strategy for building a premiership contending roster. Until something breaks their way, that leaves Canterbury in something of a holding pattern.
Longer term, the Bulldogs have to start thinking about how many fans they actually have. In 2015, just five years ago, the Dogs had the second best attendances in the league, at over 20,000 per game. Now, their TV ratings are in the toilet, last year’s attendances were less than 13,000 per game and Roy Morgan has them as the twelfth most popular team in the league.
Several years of plucky but mediocre results has eroded a once large legion of fans. For mine, based on their decision making, the future is not bright at Belmore. If it continues, will the Bulldogs end up with Manly and Cronulla as perennial candidates for relocation?