Isaac Henry will make a welcome comeback for Wests on Saturday with the upbeat knowledge he is not the forgotten man of 2022.
If you blinked, you might have missed the promising centre’s Super Rugby Pacific season...just 26 minutes in total off the bench for the Queensland Reds.
A foot injury, which required surgery, and a torn hamstring grounded the 23-year-old whose direct running, sure goalkicking and sound fundamentals won plaudits in 2021.
Henry will be at flyhalf for the opening 40 minutes when the “Bula Dogs” take on Souths at Chipsy Wood Oval in Round 9 of the StoreLocal Hospital Cup.
That might have been all this week had in store but for a surprise phone call which has swept him into the Australia A squad as a late injury replacement for the Pacific Nations Cup in Fiji.
“I wasn’t really expecting that at all. It’s nice to know you’re not forgotten with the injuries of this season,” Henry said.
“I always enjoy playing my club footy at Wests. I’ve got itchy feet because I can’t wait just to get some game time under my belt again.
“Donning the No.10 jersey...it’s probably the first time for that since Colts in 2018.”
Immersing himself in club footy for the past few weeks has given Henry a strong sense of the vibe at the Bulldogs since the gut-wrenching 41-39 loss to GPS in last year’s semi-finals.
“That loss stung us all (after being 24-3 ahead). Being around the boys again, the goal and sole focus is to be in the grand final this year. You can feel it,” Henry said.
Both his injuries kept Henry off his feet so his main gains have been around consciously working towards a more balanced life. He's devoting more time to his business studies and his family.
“When you pick up a few injuries, you realise how important life balance is. I’m seeing more of my grandparents for one thing,” Henry said.
The Bulldogs have beaten Easts (43-34), Bond University (31-15) in the mud, Sunnybank (24-5) and Norths (43-25) but the narrow losses to University of Queensland, Brothers and GPS have been more instructive.
“We are still learning to play that 80 minutes to finish teams off when we get a lead. We learnt that lesson the hard way at the end of last year,” backrow stalwart Connor Anderson said.
“We’re a work in progress but we are definitely getting there.”
Under coach Elwee Prinsloo, Anderson said training was definitely “more intense, tougher and with more contact” than last year.
Prinsloo openly admitted that building a tougher mindset is a big part of this season.
“The biggest thing we are working on at Wests is the culture around winning. When we turn up and win, it’s as if some are quite surprised to win,” Prinsloo said.
“GPS and UQ both beat us after the 80th minute so we are working on that mental side.”
It was Prinsloo who threw out the “Bula Dogs” tag in jest but it’s not so far from the truth.
Reds flyer Filipo Daugunu is back at fullback for this game against Souths while Ilikena Vudogo and Ben Navosailagi will be the speed on the wings.
In the pack, Seru Uru will be a dynamic No.8 now he’s back from Reds duty and entrenched in his shift from Easts.
All are Fijian and that doesn’t count 2021 Fijian Test halfback Moses Sorovi, who will miss Saturday’s game with a knee niggle. Joel Atkins comes in at halfback.
The Bulldogs have been boosted by an upbeat connection with the Melbourne Rebels.
Last year, flyhalf Carter Gordon made a committed return to the Toowong-based club where it all started for him. He played seven games.
This season, the Bulldogs have scored a coup. Giant Rebels prop Cabous Eloff will start against Souths after his debut with a cameo off the bench against Norths.
The Bulldogs have struggled to find a pair of shorts to fit him. At 120kg-plus and 1.93m, the South African-born tighthead will be a huge plus.
He’ll even have Prinsloo barking at him in familiar Afrikaans if he wishes.
He made a couple of big ball-carries against Norths to show how destructive a runner he can be.
The Bulldogs haven’t played in a Premier Rugby grand final since John Roe’s 2006 side won the title.
It’s definitely a target to shoot for.