Hazem El Masri can feel a sense of the early 2000s at Canterbury.
Not just in the physical presence of several of his 2004 premiership teammates, but also in the impact they are having on the next generation of Bulldogs.
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The NRL’s multicultural round launch this week served as something of a premiership reunion for the Bulldogs at Belmore, who have long been leaders in this area.
Sonny Bill Williams helped host the event, weeks after returning to Belmore again to talk with players and present jerseys to Canterbury’s debutants.
Willie Mason also spoke alongside El Masri, with both on Canterbury’s support staff.
Andrew Ryan, Mark O’Meley, Roy Asotasi are also in the football department, with the Bulldogs showing promise ahead of Sunday’s clash with Wests Tigers after shocking Melbourne last week.
“To have them here teaching the next crop of Bulldogs is fantastic, and they will learn a lot from their experience as well,” El Masri said.
“When I first came into the club and I saw the likes of Terry Lamb and Billy Johnston and Steve Folkes and Turvey (Mortimer), Jim Dymock and all the boys, I just thought, ‘wow’.
“Just to have them come and address you and say hello and guide you was fantastic.”
It’s apt that the Bulldogs’ public reunion came in multicultural week.
Canterbury were leaders in the space with the first multicultural game 30 years ago against Parramatta at Belmore.
Lebanese-born El Masri was also at the forefront of one of the league’s first true multicultural teams at the turn of the century, training through Ramadan as one of the NRL’s first Muslim stars.
“We learned about one another’s culture and nationality … it brought us closer together,” El Masri said.
“I went through probably the most turbulent time, I reckon, of any footballer.
“It all started off, for example, with the Super League war, when I first entered the arena, then we had the salary cap and the Coffs Harbour stuff.
“Then as a Muslim, there was 9-11, the Bali bombing, the Skaf brothers and the Cronulla riots. You just go, ‘stop, someone press the stop button’.
“I was like an open book in front of everyone … I loved being part of that team, teaching and learning at the same time.“
Together, that group are now united in trying to revive the Bulldogs.