Why three clubs with 411 seasons of heritage need 2024 to be the year they start their journeys back up the NRL food chain




Deep within the bowels of the old Belmore grandstand, hungry dogs of war twitch with anticipation, the metal studs of boots belonging to Lamb, Langmack and Mortimers crack and crunch on the concrete floors of the old dressing shed.

It’s 3pm on a Sunday – on any given weekend – somewhere in history.

Across town at Leichhardt, Laurie Nichols is ducking and weaving.

The Saints are marching into Jubilee.

At Orana Park, it’s another Winfield Blue for Tommy as his Magpies inch toward a gutsy, upset win.

Stanley Steeler and his men in scarlet and white have scored another – their visitors wishing they never trekked down Mount Ousley.

Benji Marshall’s sidestepping and flick passing.

Jamie Soward’s kicking goals for fun.

Any given weekend…

Somewhere in history.

These are the moments playing over and over through time and these are the reasons we fans keep showing up year after year.

Win or loss.

We always come back.

It’s hope.

Hope that finally, finally, “this is our year”.

This is the season we turn it all around.

So here sit three clubs with everything to gain and everything to lose.

Canterbury-Bankstown, St George Illawarra and Wests Tigers.

Between them, in their current forms, they share 137 seasons of history.

Chuck in their heritage clubs Western Suburbs, Balmain, St George and Illawarra and it balloons out to the grand total of 411 seasons in first grade footy – if you don’t mind.

All that history, all those memories, all that hope.

And in 2024, these three clubs have Everest to climb.

Last weekend, they began their respective campaigns with all the expectation in the world and thousands of desperate fans watching every pass, tackle and kick with a magnifying glass and relentless analysis.

These three teams finished at the very bottom of the competition table last year. Bulldogs 15th, Dragons 16th and Wests Tigers dead last and their second consecutive wooden spoon.

While from a distance, it appears they’re all in the same boat, on closer expectation, they’ve all decided to jump ship and find their own ways back to the promised land.

On Thursday night, the next generation of Bulldogs beat a second-string Melbourne Storm headlined by the returning superstar Ryan Papenhuyzen who successfully got through 40 minutes of footy.

The Bulldogs won the game but were missing several players including new signing Stephen Crichton.

Much has been made of the turnover of the Bulldogs roster in recent times and the ruthlessness of General Manager Phil Gould.

Dean Ritchie from The Daily Telegraph revealed a few weeks back that not a single player from the 2021 squad remains today.

Some may argue they were quite rightfully squeezed considering the side’s fortunes.

If you can’t hack it, we’ll move you on.

Not good enough? Not winning? There’s the door.

The Bulldogs have snapped up several premiership-winning Panthers in Viliame Kikau, Matt Burton and Penrith squad player Jaeman Salmon.

We’d need a whole other article to run through everyone else they’ve brought in.

While the short-term, hard-and-heavy recruitment drive may bring success sooner, nobody is sold yet on the Bulldogs and the flow-on is that they will probably lose a few of their most promising juniors to rivals.

The vultures are always circling.

Some might call it an art form.

Nobody quite gets it right and most get it wrong but somewhere in the middle is okay for most.

St George Illawarra on the other hand have scraped and clawed to fill their roster under new coach Shane Flanagan.

The Dragons have been linked to every big-name player on the market and have missed out on all of them. Whether they were in the hunt for all of them is a question for another time.

With all fairness, Flanagan has done a good job playing “money ball” with his remaining roster spots and has brought in several experienced heads as the new era at the Dragons begins.

Reality is, St George Illawarra’s team is going to look very different in a few years but this is what Flanagan has to play with in 2024.

Everything they do now means something, all with an eye on the future.

The tide will turn, and star recruits will eventually come but for now, the focus must be on what they can do this season.

On Saturday night, in the 40 minutes that mattered, the Dragons were the better team against the Rabbitohs. They were intense, they were committed and really did have a red-hot crack.

It was 6-all at half-time but the Dragons could have realistically been up by two or three tries.

Funnily enough, the Dragons looked at their best through the middle with Jacob Liddle playing off the hard work of his middle forwards and while Ben Hunt is their best player and needs to be performing on all cylinders in 2024, Hunt was also an issue for the Dragons at Kogarah on the weekend.

Ben Hunt was Ben Hunt’s biggest problem.

At one point, Kyle Flanagan straightened up the attack, went into the line and tipped a short pass back to bustling prop Blake Lawrie.

The next play saw Hunt slide across field, run out of room and throw a harbour bridge pass to nobody which ended up being the last play of the first quarter.

The Red V Podcast: “The Performance Was Very Good, The First 40 Minutes Is Really All That Mattered”

And then there’s Wests Tigers.

With a new coach and new attitude, Benji Marshall’s side travelled to Christchurch to face the Warriors and supporters would have been very happy with what they saw in the opening twenty minutes.

Api Koroisau’s performance out of dummy half was in stark contrast to his NRL debut for Wests Tigers at Leichhardt Oval last year.

The premiership-winner was dangerous from the outset and paved the way for Wests Tigers to open the scoring and take a 12-6 lead into half-time.

Better still, new signings Aidan Sezer and Jayden Sullivan seemed to be already clicking at halfback and five-eighth.

Warriors played the final 60 minutes with 12 men after Zyon Maiu’u was sent off for a high tackle but don’t forget the Wests Tigers cubs spent the first 10 minutes of the third quarter with 12 men too.

It doesn’t sound like much of an argument but it is when you consider that several of Wests Tigers’ players in the second half could have shown up and played in SG Ball over the weekend instead.

At the end of the day, it’s pre-season.

The landscape will change in a few days again and all these words will become proverbial fish and chip wrapping.

All we can do as fans is ask that our teams take another step forward this weekend.


The Red V Podcast: “The Performance Was Very Good, The First 40 Minutes Is Really All That Mattered”

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