Dogs’ search for dozen has Utai going back
August 17, 2012
“We knew we were the benchmark back in those days” … Matt Utai reflects on his time at the Bulldogs. Photo: Domino Postiglione
VETERAN Wests Tigers winger Matt Utai made his NRL debut for the Bulldogs one game into the club’s record 17-game winning streak back in 2002.
Tonight, more than a decade since the power-packed winger’s remarkable opening to his career, he’ll find himself on the opposite side of the coin trying to bring a halt to his former club’s dominance.
Des Hasler’s men, who’ve now won 11 on the trot, can equal the feats of Steve Folkes’ Bulldogs of '02 - a side that contained the likes of Mark O’Meley, Willie Mason, Brent Sherwin and Luke Patten - if they go through and win the competition undefeated.
‘‘Christ, we’re looking too far now,’’ skipper Michael Ennis said when asked about the possibility of 17 straight victories. But given their form this season, and the fact they’re only six wins away from finishing the year with a premiership and a club record, it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility.
In 2002, the Bulldogs were found guilty of breaching the salary cap and were stripped of all their competition points, tarnishing a winning streak that was second to only Eastern Suburbs’ 19-game run in 1975.
Reflecting on his incredible rookie season, Utai recalled the difficulties associated with trying to maintain such a lengthy winning streak and the obstacles Hasler’s men will confront in the coming weeks. He said the records weren’t spoken about at the time, but remembers how much teams used to lift in a bid to conquer the competition heavyweights.
‘‘We knew we were the benchmark back in those days,’’ Utai said. ‘‘When you’re leading the comp and your on such a long streak like the Bulldogs are now, teams target you even more. They lift to play you just like we will lift to play them [tonight].’’
The current Canterbury side now sit equal 10th on the all-time list of longest winning streaks over one season, but can jump to equal fifth alongside Melbourne (2011), Manly (1987), Parramatta (1964, 1977) and St George (1958) if they notch up victory No.12 against the Tigers tonight.
While this Bulldogs outfit has drawn comparisons to the team that dominated the NRL in the early 2000s, Utai believes they are completely different football teams.
‘‘I’ve been looking at the style they play and it’s totally changed since back in my day at the club,’’ he said. ‘‘We had a bigger forward pack and it was about bash and barge. Their forward pack is mobile and a ball-playing pack.’’
Considering Hasler has banned his players from talking up superstar fullback Ben Barba, it comes as no shock to hear the Bulldogs aren’t focused beyond tonight’s game against the Tigers, let alone the benefits of winning another six on the trot.
‘‘We actually haven’t spoken about the winning run,’’ Ennis said. ‘‘You look at our last performances, and we really haven’t quite nailed that 80-minute performance yet. That’s the pleasing thing about this young group, that no one has come in and gotten carried away with themselves … by no means do I think we’re nailing what we need to be doing for that full 80 minutes quite yet.’’
Ennis scoffed at suggestions his side would benefit from a loss before the finals. ‘‘I really don’t think so,’’ he said. ‘‘I heard someone say the other day that they don’t send a horse out to the Melbourne Cup to lose one before it wins.’’