'Extremely lucky to be here': Inside the Bulldogs' bubble

The night is darkest just before dawn. A famous line, proclaimed everywhere from Hollywood movies and political arenas, to sporting dressing rooms and beyond. A great way to encapsulate the ambition of clinging to hope when despair is at its most pronounced.

For the Canterbury Bulldogs, it's been a pretty long night. Narrowly avoiding a wooden spoon in 2020, they've guaranteed themselves one this year. Just two wins and a points differential approaching -400 makes for harrowing reading, close to the worst of a sustained period of bleakness for the proud Belmore club. Put simply, the 'Doggies' are a fair way off adding to their stockpile of eight premierships, gained over a mostly glittering 86-year history.

>

Amidst on field carnage, are off field challenges. The Bulldogs find themselves in a similar position to the rest of the non-Queensland based league, in that they have been stuck in the sunshine state since early July, have undergone managed quarantine, and are now existing within a strict biosecurity bubble. To that end, there's nothing unique about their Project Apollo related hardships. But what does this sort of difficult situation- extended time away from home and the various rigours involved- do to a club already enduring a historically difficult phase?

The Bulldogs are stuck at the foot of the ladder, battling countless demons, engulfed in fresh off-field drama, and in the midst of a pretty considerable overhaul to both staff and playing group. Alongside the other sides with no chance of playing finals, they are counting down to the end of the season. The difference is they're doing it with a mundane sense of finality that few other clubs can relate to in 2021.

According to forward duo Jackson Topine and Corey Waddell, the message has been simple from Trent Barrett and his staff.

"What we're doing on the Gold Coast is something you'll never experience again, so make the most of it," Topine recites to ESPN.

"I think it's definitely brought us closer together quite well, being around each other every day, training together, living together. We've bonded, and got to know each other better."

"It's good to spend time with the boys, and I think the families are now really enjoying it," adds Waddell.

"Because Sydney's not the greatest place to be right now, and a lot of people are doing it hard down there. So we're all really grateful to spend the time together as a team."

One can only hope he is right on the 'never happening again' front, but the attitude certainly seems appropriate. Waddell is optimistic that fully embracing the challenge can only bode well for the struggling club.

"I think it's a great opportunity that we have. Although some guys weren't able to bring their families up, or have their partners at home- everyone's sort of in the same boat," he tells ESPN.

"Everyone knows what everyone's feeling, we're not alone in this situation. Even though it's been a tough year we can take some positives out of that and move forward."

Topine is one of the players who doesn't have his family with him in the bubble. For him, it's been about retaining a sense of the ordinary, in extraordinary circumstances.

"We're very lucky being out of lockdown up here, it's good to be out and about again," the 20-year-old says. "I have my family back home and they're not allowed to do anything. Playing, training, and being able to go to restaurants helps it feel normal, and I'm just thankful."

The job of retaining some normality is obviously one that falls largely on the shoulders of the coach. For Trent Barrett, keeping spirits up, ensuring players aren't being corrupted by the ability to go out socially again, and refraining from tearing his own hair out in a 2 and 20 season can't have been simple. Off-field drama, most recently throwing the future Bulldogs employment status of Adam Elliot into serious doubt, adds an exhausting extra dimension to the equation.

"It's a hard situation to be in as a head coach, and especially for Trent," Waddell admits. "When we're all living together 24/7 and our families are with us it can be hard to sort of balance the training and playing schedule, with outside life."

"Trent has really focused on keeping personal and footy life separate. We're constantly hounded by footy, so it's important to think outside of it," Topine adds. "He gives us plenty of free time to take ourselves away from it all."

A balancing act in every sense, and one that places a great deal of faith in players to maintain a professional edge at all times- even when being actively encouraged not to think about footy. It brings different challenges to a playing group with some considerable age gaps, and younger fringe players not seeing as much game time despite having an equal part in the bubble situation.

"It was always gonna be a bit different for the young guys compared to the old guys," 24-year-old Waddell admits. "I'm kind of in the middle."

To this end, the former Sea Eagle reserves special praise for 30-year-old Bulldogs skipper Josh Jackson, who he is quick to classify as an 'old guy.'

"He's made sure all the younger guys are comfortable and safe," Waddell says.

"Josh wants the young guys to take this opportunity to be around an NRL club (for an extended period). It's pretty special and it's a good opportunity for them to realise how lucky we can be."

For skipper Jackson, the approach to maintaining unity has been a simple one, and one made easier by the easing of restrictions in Queensland as the bubble stint has worn on.

"There's no real strategy to it," he says. "I guess the big thing is just trying to do things together. If you're going out for a coffee make sure everyone's included. Get together and go to the beach. If we play golf, make sure we do it in groups."

The group theme has clearly played its role in bringing the group closer, and allowing them to better understand one another.

"We do activities where we get to know more about each other- where everyone's come from, what their background is," says Waddell.

"Being up here, there's a great opportunity to do that. We've got all this extra time together, so we're trying to make the most of it."

The former Blues and Test back rower admits that while Canterbury's woes have played their part in making things feel suffocating at times, paying attention to the nature of the defeats can also contribute to keeping the playing group in a decent headspace.

"It's obviously been tough with all the losses. But pulling the positives out of those games, and then focusing on the preparation for the next week is key," Jackson says.

And yet, one can't help but wonder about the true resolve of a playing group on the cusp of being broken up at season's end. With big changes imminent at the club, surely there's been some awkward moments in the hotel corridors.

"Certainly not," Jackson claims, enthusing that departing players have actually played important roles in ensuring disharmony isn't prevalent.

"The guys that are moving on at the end of the season- particularly Will Hopoate- have been fantastic."

Hopoate's departure after six years with the Bulldogs will be keenly felt, but the popular former Tongan international is singled out by Jackson for not allowing his personal future cloud his team's present situation.

"We're gonna miss him here, his leadership and the way he goes about things," Jackson says.

"But he's just been really positive for the guys. It's a tough sport, rugby league. Having players move on every year- that's the nature of it. But our guys have been really good. And in terms of the new guys coming in- yeah there's a really good group arriving- but that's next year."

"I think it (being in the bubble) has helped for sure," says Topine.

"Obviously the results haven't gone our way but I think moving into next year, the playing group that stays together will have a good bond. Hopefully we can show that on the field (next year). But for now, it's more focusing on this year, and making their (departing players) time memorable here."

As for Jackson, the pressure of performance coupled with the juggling act of man management in the Bulldogs bubble must surely be taking a toll. Does anyone take the time to check in on him?

"Every day," he says. "I talk a lot with Trent and the coaching staff, and we keep each other looking ahead. Personally, I'm just trying to focus on winning the games we have left."

There is a final touch of class from Jackson, whose overall mandate is evidently to deflect from the plight of his squad. Despite their struggles on the field, off-field turmoil, and an uncertain future- his message has nothing to do with the hardships of bubble life.

"We're extremely lucky to be here," he says.

With a final classy flourish, the skipper finishes with a shout out to fans, family members and everyone else still affected by lockdowns in the Canterbury community, nestled deeply within the currently stricken region of Western Sydney.

'Firstly, thankyou for all of your support,' says the ten season Bulldog. 'It's been a tough year not being able to get out in the community and see our supporters and our members.'

Jackson's concluding words are few, but meaningful, and could be equally applied to his own teammates enduring their own sustained period of darkness.

'I understand it's tough down there. But try and stay positive. We'll get out of this together.'