The Northern Bulldogs enjoyed a watershed season as a club in 2018. The premiers made a long-awaited return to the finals with a second-place finish in the Massetti Cup, before making a gallant preliminary final exit against Hornby.

The premier reserves then heralded a huge party out Kaiapoi way by taking out the Canterbury Cup grand final with an upset of Linwood.

A repeat of that decorated campaign will prove challenging, however, with significant player movement over the summer. Meanwhile, Sam Brown returns to the club he won a premiership with as a player in 2007 to take over as premiers coach following a couple of seasons in charge at Riccarton.

“Though there’s some players that were there last year, the team is quite new,” Brown said.

“I’m definitely enjoying it, there’s a massive supporter base and it’s always nice being involved with a club like that. It’s been a pretty good pre-season, we’ve had a few issues but I think they’re probably common across rugby league – things like depth.”

The Bulldogs have lost the likes of Chris Bamford – the 2018 Massetti Cup’s top try-scorer – and Michael Buston, while Paradise Mann has returned to Papanui and Chase Williams took an opportunity to play in the Gold Coast competition.

But a solid core of experience remains from last year.

“We’ve still got a few seasoned premier players in the likes of Vinnie Paul, Steve Maat and Nathaniel Tirikatene,” Brown said.

“Kyle Reuben is also kicking on for another year – if his old age lets him make it through to the end of the season, time will tell. So there’s definitely some senior players still left, it’s just a matter of blooding in some younger players.”

Nick Wain, a standout at fullback throughout 2018, will also be back on deck. Veteran playmaker Izic Placid will be available sometime after his New Zealand Pro Boxing Cruiserweight title fight at Woolston Club on May 3.

Brown has also brought promising half Zac Riley across from the Knights and expects him to play a key role in driving the Bulldogs’ campaign – despite working his way back from a long-term injury.

“Unfortunately for Zac, in his second year in the competition and still only young, he was looking like he was going to have a breakout season but he broke his leg early on,” Brown explained.

“Hopefully he’ll get to showcase some of his skills and match management ability. He was a bit wary in some of those pre-season trials, but essentially it’s just overcoming some of those mental demons.

“He’s getting there – he’s still having some niggling issues with the ankle but I’m sure he’ll come right.”

The Bulldogs do not have the luxury of easing into the 2019 season, drawing 2016-18 grand finalists Hornby first up at Murphy Park.

The teams played out an epic prelim final at the same venue last year, the Panthers ultimately prevailing 16-6 – the biggest winning margin in three hard-fought matches between the sides.

“It’s definitely a tough one. But if we go in with mindset that regardless of what they have, we’ll just focus on what we can control and I think we’ll compete really well.

“For myself, it’s about introducing a new style of football and we’ll use our first few games to see how the style pans out.

“Hopefully over time we’ll start competing with some of the top teams.”

Keep up with the Northern Bulldogs’ progress in 2019 by following their Facebook and Instagram pages.

Photo Credit: Dai Roberts

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