Canterbury coach Des Hasler was slapped with a whopping $20,000 fine by the NRL after the broadside he fired at the match officials following the Bulldogs’ narrow win over lowly Newcastle on Saturday night.
“I’m pretty disappointed in some of the interpretations of the rules,” Hasler said after the game at Hunter Stadium.
“I didn’t know the game had gone back to five metres. It was pretty obvious in [Newcastle’s] intent, getting off their line.
“You had a couple of times there where [the referee] could’ve done something about it, but it was just out of his (referee Adam Devcich) depth, the poor fella.”
Hasler even joked about sending NRL Head of Football Todd Greenberg – the man who brought him to the Bulldogs from Manly at the end of 2011 as the club’s CEO – a breach notice for ‘misrepresentation’.
The hefty punishment was almost a given after the most blatant spray against referees any coach has produced this season.
The wily, wavy-haired mentor received a suspended $10,000 fine for his infamous ‘Voldemorts’ press conference after the NRL handed down a preseason edict preventing coaches from commenting on referees’ performances. That suspended figure makes up half of this week’s amount payable.
But the fine – which the Bulldogs will inevitably pick up the tab for – may end up being a shrewd investment.
Hasler, who has become established as one of the great modern coaches after steering Manly and Canterbury to five grand finals in the past eight seasons, is the ringmaster of mind games.
Saturday’s stinging critique will undoubtedly have an effect on the whistle-blowers controlling the Bulldogs’ subsequent matches – whether it be subliminally or not – and Hasler’s charges will reap the benefits. The refs will be fervently patrolling the 10 metres this weekend and through the finals when Hasler is in the coach’s box.
What Hasler has also done is divert the attention away from his team. When Trent Hodkinson’s season-ending broken arm should have hogged the headlines, the coach rerouted the focus back onto himself – and the breach notice and fine would have been water off a duck’s back for the cunning tactician.
Canterbury is the side that has premiership heavyweights Sydney Roosters, Brisbane and North Queensland looking over their shoulders. The blue-and-whites are much better – on paper and from a form perspective – than the out-of-sorts team that limped into the 2014 playoffs in seventh before storming all the way to the grand final.
An almost-certain thrashing of the Warriors in the last game of Round 26 could potentially catapult the Bulldogs into the top four if Manly upsets Cronulla and Melbourne, as expected, goes down to Brisbane. The more likely scenario is that they land in fifth spot and face a straightforward assignment against struggling eighth-placed St George Illawarra.
Launching a title assault from the bottom half of the eight won’t bother the Bulldogs. After winning just two of their last eight regular-season games last year, they cast aside the Storm, Sea Eagles and Panthers in do-or-die finals, before being outclassed by Souths in the decider.
September charges are in the club’s DNA – the ninth-placed Bulldogs won four consecutive sudden-death finals (including the latter two in extra-time) to reach the 1998 grand final in the inaugural NRL season’s 10-team finals series, while the Super League-ravaged club pulled off the unlikeliest of premiership triumphs from sixth spot in 1995, the first year an eight-team finals series was run.
Hodkinson’s injury is a blow to the Bulldogs’ continuity, but Josh Reynolds returns this week and will renew his halves partnership with boom playmaker Moses Mbye. Reynolds and Mbye are the duo that has been anointed to steer the club’s future campaigns after Hodkinson joins Newcastle, while it also allows Hasler to roll with a big, four-forward bench instead of employing Reynolds in a utility role.
The injection of seasoned international Brett Morris and tryscoring machine Curtis Rona into the back-three, accompanying the rock-solid Sam Perrett, is a vast improvement on the comparatively toothless line-up the Bulldogs fielded last year (Perrett, Corey Thompson and Mitch Brown).
Sam Kasiano is in effervescent, career-best form and is ably backed by captain James Graham, NSW prop David Klemmer and impressive rookie Shaun Lane, while the team is better off without injured enigma Tony Williams, with the all-international backrow of Josh Jackson, Frank Pritchard and Greg Eastwood all in outstanding touch.
Hooker Damien Cook has gone from unheralded replacement to trump card in the space of two games – and if his performances since coming into the side are any guide, injured rake Michael Lichaa will have a torrid time unseating Cook in 2016.
Mbye, who gained valuable big-game experience filling in for injured skipper Michael Ennis in last year’s grand final, has proven himself as a bona fide match-winner with rare individual brilliance throughout 2015; Hodkinson’s injury should see Mbye go to another level in the knowledge that he is the Bulldogs’ undisputed linchpin from here on out.
There’s plenty of formidable hurdles for Canterbury to still overcome before claiming its first premiership in 11 years. But of the other contenders, the title-favourite Roosters have key injury absentees, the high-flying Broncos are lacking finals experience, the Cowboys have injury concerns and multiple September demons to conquer, the Sharks have 48 years of history going against them, and the Storm will struggle to get past week two without Billy Slater. The ailing Rabbitohs and Dragons will purely be there to make up the numbers before embarking on a swift qualifying final exit.
And with Hasler at the helm motivating, scheming and manipulating, the Dogs already have a big head-start as the September action looms.