The Bulldogs went from NRL powerhouse to the laughing stock of the league almost overnight. As they emerge from their salary cap hell after five years in the wilderness, their passionate fans are daring to dream once again. In the second part of the Herald’s investigation into the rise, fall and rebirth of the Bulldogs, key figures at the club reveal the events that led up to the revolution.
You could see the steam coming from Ray Dib as he made his way down from the chairman’s lounge to the dressing room underneath ANZ Stadium.
A 38-0 shellacking at the hands of Penrith, the club’s fourth loss on the trot, came just two months after the board begrudgingly extended Des Hasler’s contract during the 2017 season.
Dib was irate. He approached Hasler and asked to speak to the players alone. The chairman wanted answers.
“I said: ‘Ray, are you sure you know what you’re doing here?’,” Hasler recalls.
“I advised against it and said, ‘I think I should be here’. It was more protecting Ray and protecting the team. From my experiences, this was not how you do these things. It was too emotional. But I didn’t want to create a scene in front of the players, so I stepped out.”
Dib recalls it differently.
“He didn’t say that,” Dib said. “I asked him to leave and I whispered in his ear saying, ‘Trust me, this is in your best interest for the players to be up front if there are any concerns they might have’.”
“That week I already had two senior player managers advise me of the concerns of their clients losing faith in Des Hasler’s coaching style.
“And in the lifts on the way down to the sheds, people who had expressed interest in major sponsorships and a third-party player deal said to me: ‘Sorry Ray, we’re going to leave it for this year’.”
Dib reminded the players of the sponsors they were about to lose after they plummeted to 14th on the ladder.
“F— your sponsors,” one player stood up and yelled as his teammates watched on in shock.
“My heart was beating,” Josh Reynolds, who didn’t even play that game due to injury, confessed. “It was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done to stand up to our chairman.”
“But when we’re sitting there after losing four in a row, him coming in and questioning us, telling Des to leave – it was all a bit too much. To this day, I felt I had earned the right to speak up, given how long I’d been at that club.
“I’ve known Ray for a long time. I played with his son when we were kids. I looked up to Ray. I still do. But I said, ‘We’re in here, we’re the ones copping all this and you’re worried about everyone else. Why don’t you worry about us.’
“Look, I understand what the sponsors mean to the game. They are everything. But at that time, we had just been flogged from pillar to post. Journos were writing shit about us, no one coming to our games and had sponsors leaving.
“Really, I shouldn’t say that to my boss, but still, to this day, I don’t regret saying that. When you’re in a bad place like we were, we didn’t need to hear that.”
For Dib, it’s a moment he’s not proud of.
“It’s the biggest regret of my time at the club,” he admits.
The emotion inside the sheds on that Sunday afternoon in June was heightened by the fact a number of players, including Reynolds and James Graham, who opted not to comment, were being shown the door.
It wasn’t the first time players were bemused by the decisions being made by those calling the shots.
“There were a few decisions that made you scratch your head,” former halfback Trent Hodkinson says.
“You didn’t know where things were coming from a little bit. Dale Finucane. Mick Ennis. They go on to win comps at other clubs. Players didn’t understand why they were let go.”
Reynolds was the glue of the team. He epitomised what it was to be a Bulldog. He united two distinct factions in the squad after a split between the Polynesian players residing in western Sydney and the Anglo players from the Sutherland Shire.
The players loved him. The kids of the players loved him (he is godfather to three of them).
Most importantly, the fans adored him, largely because the feeling was mutual.
Two nights before the 2012 grand final, Reynolds – having heard the drums and noise from his Belmore home – drove down the main street of town with his window up and hoodie over his head.
“Is that Reynolds?” a young Bulldogs fan yelled.
“I promise you, within 10 seconds, 100 people surrounded the car, they opened the door and picked me up on their shoulders,” Reynolds recalls.
“They were playing the drums, shoved a microphone in my face and started telling me to yell stuff out. There I was, two nights before the grand final, shitting myself that Des was going to find out.
“I miss it. I miss being the Prince of Belmore. It’s f—ing silly even calling me that, but that’s how I felt. I loved it. I have been chasing that feeling ever since. It was the best time of my life.
“What the club and the fans and the area have done for my life – I’ll never be able to repay them. I’ll always be a Bulldog.
The Bulldogs, too, have struggled to recover from the cultural void Reynolds left when he took the big money at the Wests Tigers after he was made a low offer by the Bulldogs.
“When he left, it wasn’t the Bulldogs any more,” hooker Michael Lichaa says.
SACK OR BACK HIM
Todd Greenberg has long held the view that chief executives who take on a job with the head coach already in place will never have as much authority as those who appoint the coach.
“It makes your job 1000 times harder,” he says.
The Canterbury CEO Raelene Castle was caught between a rock and a hard place. She believed in Hasler, despite those on the inside feeling the coach was taking advantage of her loyalty.
However, her boss was at loggerheads with the coach and viewed Castle’s perceived allegiance to Hasler as a betrayal of the board’s trust.
“It’s not true, I was absolutely prepared to sack Des if that was what the board agreed,” Castle says. “Sacking a coach comes with the role of CEO.”
It all came to a head at a board meeting at the end of the 2016 season. Dib and the board, who felt it was unrealistic for Hasler to ask for a contract extension 22 months out from the expiration of his deal, ignored the advice of the CEO.
“I went to the board and said, ‘You either have to re-sign him today or sack him today – any other option is when the uncertainty will start causing us issues’,” Castle says.
“I’d done the financial analysis and presented the options on who we could get to replace him. I said to them we either go down that path or we re-sign Des, because the moment you don’t do either of those things you’ll lose all the player managers with the uncertainty.
“Not making the decision then was absolutely, in my mind, a pivotal moment in the trajectory of the club.”
Dib says the board, by that point, had lost faith in Castle’s recommendations.
“She wanted to extend Des 22 months out from his contract end date,” Dib said of Castle. “She also wanted to extend [development manager, Noel] Cleal’s contract when it was clear to all of us he was struggling to develop any players into first graders. He didn’t reach any of his KPIs in four years. Des begged me to keep Cleal on board and Raelene backed him but the board had lost trust in her judgment by then.”
Hasler has always been stubborn. Before the 2014 grand final he wasn’t impressed with the song and dance South Sydney were making about ringing the foundation bell before they ran on to the field.
He agreed to a request from Russell Crowe and South Sydney for the Rabbitohs to run out first but, as retribution, kept his team in the sheds as long as possible. The Bulldogs were later fined $20,000 for keeping the Rabbitohs waiting an extra four minutes.
When they were successful, Hasler’s methods were never questioned. But when the results turned, he was interrogated.
“We were no longer getting the return on our investment,” Dib says. “The Bulldogs club demands success. Two grand final appearances were great, but it wasn’t good enough.”
Five rounds into the 2017 season, following a marathon five-hour meeting at the Pullman Hotel at Sydney Olympic Park, the Bulldogs agreed to extend Hasler’s contract.
“With a heads of agreement signed, everything was left in good faith,” Hasler’s manager, George Mimis, says.
At least that’s what they thought. Hasler and Mimis didn’t see what was coming next.
The results suggested there was a strong chance Hasler would be axed – it’s why Mimis fielded an expression of interest from the Warriors at the time.
But neither contemplated that when Dib ended the marriage in September, he would try and do so without a $1 million payout.
“What I couldn’t say back then is that we only signed an MOU – which signals the willingness of the parties to move forward, but is not legally binding,” Dib says.
“We were still waiting on Mimis to fine-tune some conditions. We never received the signed contract. We then heard that Mimis was in discussions with the Warriors.
“I also took out an insurance policy that protected the club. That if we didn’t proceed with the MOU, and he wanted to take legal action for unfair dismissal, that the club would be covered for its legal fees and any costs.
“We were confident with our actions. As we were advised by senior legal counsel Arthur Moses, SC, who was also the president of the law council of Australia. His advice was we were within our rights to do what we did.”
By that stage Castle had departed. She resigned the morning after reading a story, which she believed was leaked to The Sydney Morning Herald by her chairman.
Dib had taken exception to an email Castle sent all club bosses, asking them to sign a letter of complaint against the Rugby League Players Association for meeting with a select group of chairmen – a meeting Dib was at.
END OF AN ERA
The turmoil surrounding the handling of the coach’s future led to the uprising that ended Dib’s reign at the Bulldogs.
The Andersons, led by Peter Moore’s daughter Lynne and her husband Chris, put together a ticket that overthrew six of the seven board members, including Dib. It led to George Peponis resigning as chairman of the leagues club.
“There were a lot of people with their own agendas and there was a lot of backstabbing going in. I had enough of it,” he says.
“I think there are good times ahead. They are heading in the right direction now, but it had been a pretty lean patch.”
The magnitude of the politics at Canterbury stunned legendary All Blacks coach Steve Hansen when he arrived at Belmore last year in a consultancy role.
“One of the things I see is that the constitution allows the board to be changed every two years,” Hansen had told the Herald.
“I don’t think that creates stability. I think the fans have to vote to change that. Once they get stability in the boardroom, they get a lot of people making decisions that are right for the club, rather than right for survival to come back into the boardroom.”
The Andersons used the perceived wrongful treatment of Hasler as ammunition to turn members against Dib, who had just appointed coach Dean Pay and chief executive Andrew Hill.
When the dust settled on a volatile and spiteful election campaign, which culminated in Hasler receiving his full payout and the Bulldogs receiving $300,000 from the insurance policy Dib had taken out, the aftermath was almost as ugly.
“I was at Cronulla when all the ASADA stuff went down in one of the biggest rugby league scandals in history,” Lichaa says. “But the noise around the Bulldogs was just as loud all the time, if not worse. There’s nothing like it.”
The Bulldogs went about trying to rebuild a roster that was completely lopsided, largely thanks to a host of back-ended deals, including the $1 million-a-season purchase of a broken down Kieran Foran and the $800,000 acquisition of Aaron Woods.
The Bulldogs paid the price for estimating the salary cap would rise to $10 million in 2018, despite being told to work off a figure that was $1 million less.
“We just kept saying to Raelene: you have salary cap problems coming,” Greenberg, who had been elevated to NRL chief executive at the time, recalls.
“Having seen how the salary caps work, I could see there was going to be a car crash at some point with some bad ramifications. I like Raelene, but I could always see problems coming with a salary cap, with the Bulldogs spend being significantly higher than what we had forecast.”
That job was left to Lynne Anderson, who had given authority to her husband, Chris – a two-time premiership-winning coach with the Bulldogs and Melbourne Storm in the 1990s – to infiltrate the football program.
On the outside, the noise was deafening. “Great bloke, can’t coach,” was often bandied around about Pay.
On the surface, it seemed only beneficial to have someone of Chris’ stature alongside a rookie coach, especially given Pay had played under Anderson at the Bulldogs two decades earlier.
But the relationship deteriorated to the point where the coach did everything possible to avoid his one-time mentor, often phoning staff members to see if Anderson was at Belmore before returning from lunch.
Pay believed the game had passed Anderson by. When Pay discovered Chris Anderson had met with Semi Radradra’s agent, George Christodoulou, without his knowledge, the meddling infuriated him.
When they refused to allow Pay to sign Josh Reynolds for $150,000, it became clear he wasn’t going to call the shots while the Andersons were around.
Chris’ presence became a burden until he eventually removed himself from the club when the Australian Taxation Office came knocking for millions in alleged unpaid tax and superannuation contributions by Chris and brother-in-law Kevin Moore.
“Chris thought he could value add to Dean’s coaching,” Hill recalls. “But Dean saw it as a big shadow watching over him. I saw the good in what the relationship could be. But what it became was a stress.
“I never thought Chris wanted to coach. Lend his assistance were his words. Because of the public perception that Chris was more involved than what he was, it started to put enormous pressure on Dean and, at times, Dean wanted some more space.”
DOING IT LIKE DAD
The Andersons wanted to go back to doing things “the Bulldogs way”, despite the club enjoying relative success moving away from that philosophy under Hasler.
Lynne, according to those she spoke to, often said: “This is how Dad ran the club, and this is how we will run the club”.
“Dad” is club patriarch Peter “Bullfrog” Moore.
David Klemmer also had issues with newly appointed director Paul Dunn, who criticised the prop forward at a Kangaroos reunion in Sydney a few months before winning a seat on the board.
Klemmer was already disgruntled, having lost a lucrative third-party deal that dissipated following the departure of Dib, which contributed to his defection to Newcastle.
“There were a lot of promises there that I don’t think were kept,” Josh Morris says of the Andersons rolling Dib at the polls.
“I get that the fans wanted a change to see if that would help, but I don’t think it really worked. The whole time I was there, Ray did a good job and brought a lot of potential third parties with him as well, which makes you stronger as a club, but the fans wanted to see the family link return.
“Sometimes you think change will give you a better option, but was Lynne’s tenure successful? I’m not sure you can say that. I would have liked to have seen Ray given a chance to fix what he built.”
Even those who fought so hard alongside Lynne and Chris Anderson began to see the error of their ways.
“We made big promises, and I was getting called out by members on those promises we made,” current chairman John Khoury, who was on the Andersons’ ticket, says.
“A lot of them are my friends. You have to be true to your promises.”
The Andersons, alongside John Ballesty and Dunn, called all the shots. Sponsors questioned why certain board members were being separated into distant corporate boxes at matches and were told it was for COVID-19 social distancing reasons.
The members, former players and sponsors became disgruntled. They believed the leaders of the club were out of touch with the times and the community.
An extraordinary general meeting was soon called, which led to the resignation of the chairwoman and her two most trusted directors.
“I would often give Lynne frank feedback on behalf of the members, some of it critical,” Khoury says.
“She would acknowledge it and tell me she would deal with it, but tell me, ‘Keep focusing on junior league’. I stayed loyal to the very end, but I must admit I found it disappointing when I compare this to my previous experiences in reporting to a board of a large corporation.
“I was very open in calling out concerns. I feel if Lynne had listened more to a handful of people, she would still be the chair today. What we do in these clubs is all temporary. It’s what you leave behind, that’s how people remember you.”
REBUILDING THE BULLDOGS
The revolution, at least Canterbury fans will hope, began at Peter Mortimer’s winery in Orange midway through 2020.
Mortimer, alongside Canterbury powerbrokers, hosted a lunch for Matt Burton’s mother, Lisa, in an attempt to lure the Penrith playmaker to Belmore.
They also hosted Charlie Staines’ parents, hoping they could convince the families to allow their children to be the faces of a desperately needed rebuild at the once proud club.
Major sponsor Arthur Laundy also travelled with his son Craig to Dubbo to meet with Burton’s mother at the family home.
While Staines opted to remain at the foot of the mountains, the announcement of Trent Barrett as head coach for 2021 and beyond saw Burton knock back an offer at Cronulla to sign a three-year, $1.6 million deal with the Bulldogs.
“At the time it was still a lot of money for a player that hadn’t played much first grade,” Hill says.
“But some you get right, some you don’t. This one we were all confident that he was a great player, a great young man, committed and conducted himself well.
“We were confident that he would turn out to be the player we thought he would and last year he showed that.
“I think everyone at the club now would be very happy that we signed him when we did.
“I wasn’t there to convince her [Burton’s mum]. I was there to purely tell her that, if he comes across to Canterbury, I’ll make sure that he’s looked after.
“I know we’ve got him for a couple of years, but for the next contract you just know he won’t be interested in the contract we’ve got now. He’s a gem isn’t he?”
Canterbury finally emerged from their salary cap hell with some clear air to enter the player market for 2022, signing Josh Addo-Carr alongside Burton.
The war chest at their disposal sent speculation into overdrive, including a reported 10-year, $10 million proposition to lure Latrell Mitchell.
“It was such an easy club to get a headline and there were so many tentacles around the club, that you could never really rule out if someone did leak a story,” Hill says.
“What was real and what wasn’t became so blurred. So many people had agendas of their own and they could use the football team and football department to promote that. It led to enormous distractions for management and staff to focus on delivering each week on the field.”
The performances under Pay were admirable, albeit lacking the quality necessary to elevate themselves from the bottom half of the ladder.
But those who’d been there under Hasler noticed a difference in the mood.
“The boys were walking on eggshells a lot more, thinking they’re going to get dropped,” Lichaa says.
“You’re not going to be at your best playing scared. Des was a very loyal person. He stuck by you no matter the outside noise and calls externally for team changes. He didn’t drop anyone for the sake of dropping someone. He backed them.”
The results reflected the roster, and the coach paid the price.
“Dean wasn’t given the support he deserved,” his agent, David Riolo, claims of the Andersons, who were critical of Dib’s treatment of Hasler.
“He’s a legend of the club, yet they still set him up to fail. He should have been given an extra year to live or die by his merits, rather than be judged on someone else’s roster that he never had a chance to improve.”
The club hoped the injection of Barrett’s attack-minded coaching philosophy, alongside the purchase of halfback Kyle Flanagan from the Roosters, would translate into better performances.
Instead, the Bulldogs plummeted to the bottom of the ladder and collected their first wooden spoon since 2008.
“There’s only two types of culture: there’s either a good one or a bad one. I think there’s a good culture here.”
Former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen
The mighty had fallen.
In 2012, when the club reached the grand final, they were the most watched sporting franchise in the country, with 25 million viewers tuning in for all their games. That plummeted to 14 million last year.
Long-term sponsors walked out following the board overhaul. They went without a major sponsor for almost a whole season in 2020. And when they finally landed Laundy Hotels, they gave it up at the bargain-basement price of $500,000 a year for the next two seasons. It was less than half of what Kia had previously paid.
“And on the day I agreed to sign up, Dean Pay resigned and I didn’t know,” Laundy says.
The mad Monday fiasco of 2018, when Adam Elliott was caught by News Corp photographers stripping to the tune of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline at the Harbour View Hotel at The Rocks, brought into question the culture of the club.
A couple of years later, the appointment of Hansen as Canterbury’s high-performance consultant assured them they were back on the right track.
“There’s only two types of culture: there’s either a good one or a bad one,” Hansen said. “The good one is the result of the same thing: either living the values you set out as a group or not living them.
“I think there’s a good culture here. That’s not to say there won’t be mistakes made in it. But Trent is driving that really well. I think it’s all promising in that department.”
IN GUS WE TRUST
The low point was a 66-0 thrashing at the hands of Manly in July 2021, the club’s biggest defeat since 1935, compounded by the omission of five players who breached NRL protocols and visited a Bondi hotel at the same time as a patron who tested positive to COVID-19.
However, in the club’s darkest hour, a ray of hope emerged in the form of a message of support from Phil Gould, who nine months earlier discouraged Barrett from taking the job at Canterbury.
It was only a couple of months earlier that the Bulldogs had spoken to Gould about taking a role with the club, however it fell over at the 11th hour given his allegiance to the Warriors.
A meeting between Gould, Laundy and his son Stu at the North Sydney Hotel a couple of months later reopened the door.
“I suggested to John Khoury that we should restart conversations,” Laundy says.
With the same privacy ultimatum Hasler put on the club almost a decade prior, the deal with Gould was done soon after.
Dib had previously tried to bring Gould back to the club but, at the time, told the former chairman he had unfinished business at Penrith, where he has since left behind a legacy that goes deeper than what the NRL team achieved last season.
“With the Bulldogs, there’s more to this club than just first grade,” Khoury says.
“From the outside looking in as a fan at the time, I could see that Hasler was an accomplished and successful NRL coach who was focused on his top-30 squad.
“The attraction of bringing Gus back to the club is his whole-of-club mindset – connecting the junior league and pathways to the NRL – just as he’s done successfully with the legacy that stands today at Penrith.”
The Bulldogs have handed over complete control of the organisation to Gould. Nothing happens at Canterbury without his stamp of approval.
“You don’t micromanage people who are qualified and have a track record of doing what they do,” Khoury says.
“His connections are like no one I’ve ever seen,” chief executive Aaron Warburton adds.
The recruitment of Burton, Addo-Carr, Tevita Pangai jnr, Matt Dufty, Brent Naden and Paul Vaughan has provided Canterbury fans with hope.
It is reflected in their membership drive, with a quarter of those signing with the Bulldogs for the first time, while 10 per cent have come back after cancelling at some point in the past.
“I always say to people that if the Bulldogs are a $10 share, we’re lucky to be $2 at the moment,” Warburton says. “If I’m an investor, that’s the time to get involved.”
There’s a view in rugby league circles that Gould’s power could be problematic for Barrett, given the general manager’s history of hiring and firing coaches.
“To give Trent credit, he was fully supportive of the appointment of Gus,” Khoury says.
Barrett heads into the new year as one of the coaches under most pressure to retain their jobs, given the shortcomings of his first year. The performance in the trial against Cronulla did little to ease concerns.
There are officials at Penrith who believe Gould will come knocking for their assistant Cameron Ciraldo if things go pear-shaped with Barrett, but the chairman is adamant the incumbent has the support of the club.
“I hear in the media about ‘he’s got so many weeks’ or ‘so many games’, which is untrue,” Khoury says.
“We have the right qualified people in place now to let them do their job. Gus will bring a lot of confidence with his experience and expertise.
“When you have someone like Gus around, you’ll know if things are lost. Even if things don’t go to plan, it doesn’t mean they are lost.”
The club has floated in and out of relevance for the best part of a decade. At its peak, the Bulldogs brand was like no other. But stuck in self-destruction mode, the club has lost sight of what it once was.
There are some who will never forget, living in the hope of seeing it once again.
“No matter the money I’ve earned, nothing has ever brought me the happiness that it did being at that club,” Reynolds says.
“I can’t explain it. The club is more than footy: it’s the community; it’s the people. There’s a feeling you get that you never lose.
“Even now, the memories of the good times are what have got me through the shit I’ve been through since. Deep, deep down I’ve never been able to get past leaving the club. I hope the people there now get to feel how I felt. It’s a special place.”