Updated: Jul 18, 2020
Rumours are growing stronger that Trent Barrett will leave his role as assistant coach at the Penrith Panthers to take up a job at the Canterbury Bulldogs, but it isn’t the way the board at Belmore should be thinking.
It’s hardly a surprise the Bulldogs would be looking to change things around, with current coach Dean Pay seemingly unable to get the best even out of his unbelievably weak roster.
The side won five out of their last six last season with a fairly similar playing group, but they have taken large strides backwards since the end of the 2019 season, and so the Canterbury board are reportedly growing tired of Pay’s tenure at the club.
It’s hardly the former Eels, Bulldogs and representative forward’s fault though. He has been handed the keys to a sinking ship, and until Canterbury get their roster right with some talented signings, a bit of creativity and a revamp of the top 30, they won’t be challenging for a spot in the top eight.
Even a coach along the lines of Craig Bellamy, Trent Robinson or Wayne Bennett would be struggling at Belmore right now.
As we saw back in 2013, it is possible for an unbelievable coach like Bennett to drag a team destined for the bottom towards the top, but even he couldn’t get that Knights team further than the preliminary final. It’s almost indisputable that the roster Canterbury have right now is substantially worse than the one Bennett had at his disposal in 2013, and so you can see why, without one of the best coaches in the competition at the helm, they are going backwards and look almost sure things to collect the wooden spoon come the end of the truncated 2020 season.
While the fault may not lay squarely at Pay’s feet, given the absolute mess the club are in as they try to re-build, for now at least, he may still be the best man for the job.
Some of their wins at the back end of 2019, including over the Panthers, Eels and Rabbitohs, prove he can coach, and he can get his side working for him. Pay hasn’t proven it nearly consistently enough though over his now three-year tenure at Canterbury.
He has also made a series of baffling decisions, including letting Rhyse Martin go through the middle of last year, and seemingly never being able to settle on a halves combination, which is undeniably stunting their attack. When Kieran Foran is the go-to guy, their fullback doesn’t seem to have a spot locked down week-to-week, and there is no creativity coming out of number nine, it’s understandable why Canterbury are struggling.
It starts with defence though, and that is where the ‘Dogs got their wins at the back-end of last year. In those five victories, they conceded scores of 8, 16, 6, 8 and 14. Their attack only registered a score over 20 in one of those matches.
This year, in nine weeks, they are averaging just 10.5 points per game, while letting in almost 25. It’s those numbers, giving them the worst for and against in the competition as they sit plastered to the bottom of the table, which have got fans and the board worried about Pay.
And with a coaching merry-go-round seemingly not far from kicking off in the NRL, but limited potential replacements on the open markets, it may not be the worst idea in the world for the Bulldogs to jump early.
The problem of course, lies in the fact that Barrett simply hasn’t proven himself to be a coach who can lift bottom teams, or even good ones to the top.
Unlike what Aidan O’Brien has managed to do in Newcastle this year, turning Nathan Brown’s struggling side from last year into premiership contenders, Barrett had the opposite effect during his tenure at Manly.
He sat at the bottom of the pile with a side which many thought were in the position they should be, only for Des Hasler to come in and guide the battered and bruised Sea Eagles straight into the finals – to the point he had them in grand final contention by the end of last season, with virtually the same roster.
It remains to be seen if Barrett will be able to learn from his time at the Sea Eagles during his first tenure as an NRL coach, and there is almost no doubt he would have learnt from the experienced Ivan Cleary while he has been serving as assistant at Penrith, but if the Bulldogs think they will get improvement out of changing Pay for Barrett, they have badly misjudged the situation.
Unless they can get a top-tier replacement who is proven in getting players to out-perform their expectations and previous performances – someone like Geoff Toovey for example – they should stick with Pay until at least the end of this year, to see if he can settle on a best 17, and with their salary cap issues starting to ease, build a better side for next year.
Otherwise, the club restart their re-build at Square 1 without an ounce of promise on the horizon.