What a difference a year makes. Canterbury-Bankstown were flying high 12 months ago, enjoying a solid pre-season after having surged into the 2012 Grand Final on the back of Des Hasler's first season as head coach of the club.
February 2013 then arrived, and with it a whole raft of speculation, rumours and innuendo which wouldn't stop destabilising the proud club til the season was over. The Ben Barba saga opened up wounds during the trials and ultimately wasn't put to bed until the previous seasons' Dally M winner put pen to paper with the Brisbane Broncos. The result of the tumult was a wildly inconsistent side which won just one of its opening six matches, followed by bursts of outstanding form which then inexplicably gave way to heavy and embarrassing losses. The 'Dogs managed to end up sixth through all of this, but offered merely a whimper in the finals, being bundled out by Newcastle in week one.
While many would write off the 2013 Bulldogs' season as a disaster, there were several positives which will have Hasler confident going into a new season. The leadership group developing at the club appears sound, with the addition of Frank Pritchard to the captaincy regime a solid choice. The outstanding form of English import James Graham led Canterbury's push up the ladder throughout the middle of 2013 and his presence will be important if the Belmore boys are to chase a top four finish this season.
The key for the Bulldogs though, is that fullback role. With Barba off to the sunshine state, Hasler has a host of options, with the experiment beginning last Sunday at Belmore when the Dogs hosted South Sydney. Krisnan Inu, Tyrone Phillips and Sam Perrett all had turns at the custodian role - and one would expect Josh Morris and rookie youngster Pat Templeman to be given a shot before the season kicks off.
Where they can win
That forward pack. The sheer size, movement and playing ability of the big boppers wasn't always on show in 2013, as many clubs had figured out how to stifle the Bulldogs forward play which had become so successful in 2012. Watch for a new style to be executed by Dessie's men as they look to once again utilise the ballplaying ability of forwards like Graham and Kasiano, together with rampaging inside runs from Frank Pritchard and Greg Eastwood.
Where they may struggle
The Bulldogs' fullback woes are well documented. As mentioned above, there are at least five possibilities to fill the vacant #1 jersey at Belmore. While Templeman might be the natural fit, there is always a question of whether an Under 20's player can step up so quickly into first grade. Watch for Des to introduce him gradually while experimenting with the existing clan early in the season. Much will also depend on the form of former Manly half Trent Hodkinson. After joining the 'Dogs in 2011, he battled injury and form slumps over two years to cement his halves spot in 2013.
The number six in Josh Reynolds needs to stay fit for the Doggies to fire. He continues to recover from a shoulder injury and is expected to be available for the start of the season. His performances together with James Graham's presence in the forward pack will be a huge factor in deciding the fate of the Canterbury season.
Rookies to watch
Pat Templeman had a standout season for the Bulldogs in 2013, helping guide the team to yet another preliminary final finish. His tryscoring ability is unquestioned at the Under 20's level and he appears sound under the high ball - the big transition will be weather he can match it physically at the highest level, and in defence. Tryscoring machine Jon Sila will be another player looking to take advantage of the chances available in the backline after dominating the 2013 NYC season in the tryscoring department.
The big plays
A lot will rest on who Des chooses at the back. For most of 2012 and parts of 2013, Canterbury were able to rely on long-range line breaks from Barba, along with outstanding support running from the likes of Josh Morris, Tim Lafai, and even Josh Reynolds. The ability of the backline to get outside the opposition off quick ball movement from Ennis & Hodkinson will continue to be an important asset to the side, particularly if they choose a smaller lively fullback.
Likely Round 1 lineup
1. Krisnan Inu 2. Sam Perrett 3. Josh Morris 4. Tim Lafai 5. Mitch Brown 6. Josh Reynolds 7. Trent Hodkinson 8. Aiden Tolman 9. Michael Ennis (c) 10. Sam Kasiano 11. Frank Pritchard 12. Josh Jackson 13. Greg Eastwood
Interchange: 14. James Graham 15. Tony Williams 16. Dale Finucane 17. Reni Maitua