CANTERBURY coach Des Hasler is set to keep the identity of Ben Barba’s replacement secret before the opening-round clash with North Queensland as he builds a siege mentality at the Bulldogs this season.
Hasler will officially name a team next Tuesday but Canterbury insiders say the player listed in the No.1 jersey may not be the fullback for the March 9 match at ANZ Stadium.
With props James Graham (suspended) and Sam Kasiano (knee) sidelined for the start of the season, the loss of Barba is a massive blow but the Bulldogs are fortunate to have Hasler as coach as he has experience in dealing with similar situations during his time at Manly.
Under Hasler, the Sea Eagles overcame the fallout from star fullback Brett Stewart being charged with sexual assault – for which he was later exonerated – and suspended by the NRL for bringing the game into disrepute at the start of the 2009 season.
While Hasler has been praised for putting Barba’s welfare ahead of the team’s success, Fairfax Media has been told that he will use the absence of last year’s player of the year as added motivation for the Bulldogs.
”I have known Des Hasler for a long time and I have worked with him in crisis situations before, and I know exactly what he will do,” former long-serving Manly official Peter Peters said.
”He is a very caring, very professional mentor. He is not just a great rugby league coach, he has outstanding people skills and he will put Benny and his problems ahead of the football. But he uses crisis situations to bond teams, and he will use this to his advantage. There is a very strong bond around any team he coaches.”
Former Canberra back Drury Low has been training at fullback and deputised for Barba in the Bulldogs preseason trials but Fairfax Media has been told Hasler is considering switching NSW Origin centre Josh Morris to fullback.
However, Hasler will not confirm his intention as he wants to keep the Cowboys guessing. ”Whoever plays fullback is likely to be targeted, so Des wants to protect the guy from that,” a Canterbury source said.
The Bulldogs began building a siege mentality at the club’s season launch on Tuesday night when the team was summoned to a private room with Canterbury directors and told they should still aim to better last year’s grand final loss.
Canterbury chief executive Todd Greenberg told the function the events of this week were a reminder of the need for everyone at the club to stick together.
Bulldogs football manager Alan Thompson said the expectations of the team had not changed.
”Des and Todd have shown me some great leadership in looking after the team, the club and young Ben and I think the leadership of those blokes will hold us all in good stead,” Thompson said. ”We work on the depth of our team and I am sure everyone who steps up and has the opportunity to play will equip themselves very well.”
Peters said he believed Hasler would have prepared the players for the possibility of Barba being sidelined for an extended period.
”Ben Barba couldn’t be in better hands and I think the Bulldogs should be congratulated for the way they’ve handled it,” Peters said. ”Des will keep him out for as long as Ben needs to recover and whoever takes his place will do well and fit into the system.”
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