If I had the opportunity to go back to the beginning of 2002, I wouldn’t change too much.
Despite all the off field dramas the Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs were quite a successful club. I’m extremely fortunate to have played a part.
2002 Salary Cap Drama
It’d been one hell of a pre-season. The boys were in top shape and raring to go. We had a lot of young guys, up and comers you might call them, and some experienced guys. The season flashed before our eyes.
I guess when you’re winning it’s a whole lot of fun and time flies. We got on a serious roll and hit a winning streak of 17 matches. Some of those matches we never should’ve won but it showcased the character of the playing group. The match in Newcastle, when Hazem kicked it from the sideline, is one I’ll never forget.
When you’re in the zone these things tend to happen more often than not.
A couple of weeks later we had a game at the Showgrounds. There seemed to be a lot more press in attendance than usual. I recall someone asking me what I thought about the salary cap dramas.
I had no idea. It was the first I’d heard of it.
The news broke on game day. There were only three rounds to go in the season. It was Incredibly heartbreaking, not only for myself, but especially for the players and the fans. There was nothing we could do.
The players, coaching staff and the football managers weren’t at fault. I certainly hadn’t kept an eye on what we were paying blokes, that wasn't my job. My role was to coach a footy team. I expected the hierarchy to negotiate the contracts. They’d occasionally ask me what I thought a player was worth but that’s as far as it went.
Steve Mortimer was called in to help deal with the challenging period. I guess in a way he was the ‘messiah’. It was good to have someone who knew the salary cap, understood the player’s perspective and someone who was on the coaches’ side.
The media were relentless throughout the rest of the season. Members of the club who were involved resigned. Finally, the decision was made to deduct 37 points off our tally. This left us with 4 points which we received from the byes.
The players found it quite tough to swallow at first but realised the decision wasn’t in their hands. They were simply doing their job, going out on the field and winning footy matches. They still had three matches to play and they wanted to do it for themselves and the fans. They showed just that in the last match against Brisbane.
I wouldn’t have done anything differently. We had a fantastic year of football. On the park we had a fantastic team, great team spirit and found a couple of young guys who stood up and came of age.
I’ll stick to my guns and believe we would’ve won the 2002 Premiership if all the drama hadn’t of unfolded.
2004 Coffs Harbour
We had been in Coffs Harbour for a week of pre-season training and while we had a good time the boys trained twice a day and trained bloody hard.
The morning after one of our practice matches we were sitting at breakfast when the police arrived. There were some serious allegations being thrown around.
The police interviewed each of the players individually and all their stories lined up. There was absolutely no time for the boys to have collaborated their stories.
We got everyone together that morning and asked the playing group ‘is there anything you want to tell us?’ There was certainly no indication from the playing group that anything had happened.
There was a sense of confidence amongst the group. They knew nothing had gone on and they were getting on with their day jobs.
I didn’t have any of the boys reaching out for support or guidance. They all just went about their business, playing footy for the Dogs.
We had reporters all year long waiting pre and post training to ask the players questions. We all knew they didn’t want to talk about our football. Even when they did they found a way to twist it around to involve the Coffs drama.
Throughout the season, Steve Price our captain, represented the playing group with such confidence. He always made sure the players got together and stayed tight. He was the perfect leader both on and off the field.
Pricey took on a lot of the media attention which let the boys concentrate on their footy. The younger guys would have learnt a lot just by watching him lead from the front.
I never thought the boys did anything illegal and stuck by them throughout.
With everything that went on off the field it was one of the strongest pre-seasons to date. The boys were determined to work hard and being on the field was one of the rare times in the day when they could get away from the drama. With the salary cap drama still a burning memory, then to get so close in 2003; 2004 was the year of the Bulldog.
The 2004 Premiership
Throughout the pre-season I focused on our strength; our defence. There was always a large emphasis on that area throughout the season. That’s not to say our attack wasn’t any good, we did score more points than anyone else that year. We found the right balance and it showed in the 19 matches we won throughout the season.
After our first final, against the Cowboys, we came to realise quite quickly that every team remaining is hungrier than ever to win the premiership. It’s the common denominator. We weren’t ready mentally and got beaten up.
After that loss the boys dug deeper than ever making light work of Melbourne and Penrith to reach the Grand Final.
After all we had gone through it was really tough to work with Pricey during his rehab. He threw the kitchen sink at it. There was no doubt he was always going to put the team first.
We knew from week one of the finals that he wasn’t going to be there. For the sake of a young Johnathan Thurston, we strung the announcement out a little. We didn’t want him to have to deal with the scrutiny that came with being called up for a Grand Final.
I’ll never ever forget the 2004 Grand Final.
It was a special feeling especially the way the match played out.
With a minute to go Michael Crocker stuck his nose through our line. Andrew Ryan, our stand-in captain, tripped him up causing him to lose the ball. That was the ball game and the first time I got to relax that evening.
Hearing the final siren was more of a relief than anything.
We deserved to win. We were definitely the better team. I felt the score line flattered them.
Everything the club had been through, to come out successful was magical.
Through all the setbacks, the strength of the club was on display.
We were a tight group. I think Coffs Harbour brought us together. When you’re getting hounded by outside sources all the time you tend to turn inwardly to your mates. I think the bond of that team was greater because of those allegations.
The 2004 Premiership showed that the players we brought into the team were Canterbury-type players. They all were extremely talented in their positions and it all just clicked.
I’ll always remember the comradery that team shared.
Images supplied by Bulldogs
Steve Folkes is a former Australian professional rugby league player and former coach of the Bulldogs in the National Rugby League. He represented both New South Wales and Australia.