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Cullen barks loud in Bulldogs pack

LEADING ROLE: Mitch Cullen pulls down Wests’ Jermaine Ale last year. Picture: Peter StoopAS big names like George Ndaira, Mark Khierallah and Ben Jeffries exited Kurri Kurri after their loss to Wests in the Newcastle Rugby League grand final last year, Mitch Cullen made a decision.
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The 21-year-old wanted to step up and become a leader within the side.

Last week against Maitland, Cullen’s transformation into one of the Bulldogs’ key players was complete when he scored a hat-trick of solo second-half tries to deliver Kurri a rousing 28-22 victory.

‘‘We know those boys aren’t coming back, and for some of the younger boys it was time to step up, and I’ve put that role on myself,’’ Cullen said.

He said the win over the Pickers had given the Bulldogs a vital shot of self-belief going into their clash today with Macquarie at Peacock Field.

‘‘If you look at the paper a couple of weeks ago, Maitland were predicted third and we were predicted sixth, giving us no chance really,’’ he said.

‘‘Beating Maitland, one of the strongest teams, was good to get early.’’

Another key to Cullen’s rapid improvement has been his return to hooker.

The retirement of former captain-coach Ndaira has allowed the versatile red-head to once again nail down the No.9 jersey.

‘‘It’s where I started before I came into first grade,’’ he said.

‘‘Since I’ve been playing over the last four years I’ve been thrown around, but it’s nice to be back there. There’s still a bit of work to do there.’’

Despite the impressive win over Maitland, the intensity is expected to rise against the Scorpions, who boast arguably the most intimidating pack in the competition.

Macquarie will also have revenge on their minds. Last year in the minor semi-final Kurri knocked the Scorpions out of the competition with a 48-30 win, after Macquarie led 30-6 at one stage.

‘‘There’s been plenty of meetings since last year, but we’re over that now,’’ Macquarie coach Barrie Moore said.

‘‘We just had a bad end to the season, we lost both our second-rowers and our momentum went out the window. We’re over that now and have some new players into the club and a new attitude.’’

Two of those new players, hooker Chris Hyde and second-rower Hamish Bryant, were impressive on debut last week in Macquarie’s 32-18 win over Port Stephens. Hyde was awarded three points in player-of-the-year voting and Bryant was defensively sound. Macquarie captain and prop Danny Vaughan was knocked out in the opening minute in a head clash but has been cleared to return.

Kurri are not so lucky, with lock Jay Stevens ruled out for five to six weeks after an X-ray revealed he sustained a fractured eye socket against Maitland.

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