The Dogs had a serious dig against the Eels in round one before succumbing to an 8-2 defeat, and good judges still believe that had Harawira-Naera and Okunbor played, the result could have been a different.
Round two against North Queensland, a Thursday night game that was the first NRL clash played behind closed doors because of coronavirus, ended in a blowout, but not a result that would hurt Pay’s hopes of a renewal.
But the Bulldogs never got the chance to atone for the defeat. The rapid spread of the coronavirus forced the NRL to shut down the competition the following Monday, with Pay and his team plunged into limbo along with everyone else in the game.
The NRL is aiming to restart the competition by May 28, with the format of the season still to be determined. Pay told the Herald on Tuesday it was not ideal to have potentially just 13 games to save his season.
“If we’re only going to play 13 games instead of 22 more games, of course it becomes harder and reduces the opportunities there are [to impress],” Pay said. “We started the season OK. We played well against Parramatta, the second round we took a step back. You can’t get any continuity with what you’re doing, and you have to start well as soon as the competition starts back.
“One good thing is we get ‘Foz’ [Keiran Foran] back, and a couple of other guys like Jesse Sue and Marcelo Montoya are both back from injury. They’ll put pressure on spots and are quality first-graders. That all helps.”
Pay took on his first coaching job at his old club ahead of the 2018 season. James Graham and Josh Reynolds had just been squeezed out of Belmore because of salary-cap pressure, only for Moses Mbye, the recently-arrived Aaron Woods and David Klemmer to reluctantly follow suit to help tighten the Belmore belt.
Dogs chief executive Andrew Hill has done it tough emotionally since COVID-19 forced the closure of the Canterbury League Club, which forced 400 staff to be stood down, followed by some blunt conversations with the football department.
Hill is well aware of the interest in Pay’s future and accepts it will be a conversation he and the board must have once the make-up of the NRL competition becomes clear.
There is also the little matter of if, when and how the Dogs replace Harawira-Naera and Okunbor – who have since appealed their deregistrations – given the club only have 27 spots on their 30-man roster filled.
If Pay is identified as the Dogs’ man, a two-year deal rather than a one-year extension appears more likely.
“One of the unfortunate issues around the suspension of the competition is for people like Dean and players coming off contract, it makes those decisions a little more difficult,” Hill said.
“At the end of the day the board and I will need to sit down in the coming weeks to discuss Dean’s future. But certainly the way we finished last season, and a very good pre-season, is a good starting point for what Dean has been able to achieve the last six months.”
Pay’s good friend Ricky Stuart who went into bat for his Dogs counterpart a month ago, and explained how the Raiders had stuck by him for several years to allow him to ”create the stability and build a competitive football team”.
“And that doesn’t happen in two or three years,” Stuart said.
Christian covers rugby league for The Sydney Morning Herald.