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2 days ago
The public glare is off and the Bulldogs are enjoying themselves again.
It bodes well for the Belmore-based NRL club this year following a 2003 season in which the huge weight of expectation from supporters and constant speculation over the team's stability put their footy in the background.
This time last year the `Dogs were still dealing with the salary cap scandal, despite all efforts to consign the scandal to the history books.
But in 2004 no-one is talking about that dark period in the club's history, maybe because people feel the `Dogs have paid their dues with the departure of several high-profile players.
Captain Steve Price, admitted to feeling the strain in an exhausting 2003, can feel a more relaxed mood in the camp.
"It's back to the way it was before - enjoying your footy again," the 29-year-old said.
"I was involved in that (the salary cap scandal) a fair bit in the way of handling it and it was pretty stressful.
"In the last season I was exhausted. I wanted to have a big season myself.
"I suppose the expectations of everybody trying to live up to what we did the previous season was really draining."
Queensland Origin forward Price was referring to 2002 when the Bulldogs won 17 straight games before their season exploded following the uncovering of massive salary cap breaches.
The squad stuck together through the rough patch but at the end of last season, Nigel Vagana (Cronulla), Travis Norton (Cowboys) and Willie Talau (St Helens) were the big names to leave the Bulldogs' kennel.
With little room to move under the cap, the club has recruited only centre pairing Jamaal Lolesi (Canberra) and Willie Tonga (Parramatta), leaving them exposed in the backline should injuries strike.
Already, Ben Harris is recovering from shoulder surgery and will miss the first month of the season.
Price conceded the `Dogs had lost some quality players, but believed youngsters like five-eighth Johnathan Thurston and 18-year-old forward Sonny-Bill Williams would fill the void.
"It's a fairly young squad - I think I'm the second-oldest there now (behind Glen Hughes) and that's a bit scary," said Price.
"The excitement is when you go to training, these guys are really keen and enthusiastic.
"I'm not saying that wasn't there before but it just injects some enthusiasm and keenness into the squad.
"Everyone believes we can succeed again and we're giving the younger guys an opportunity, which is a bit of unchartered territory."
The reports from Belmore are that halfback Brent Sherwin, troubled by a back injury last year, is training like a rookie in the hope of earning a representative jersey in 2004.
Williams was hampered by a shoulder injury last year but coach Steve Folkes has hopes he will add some grunt to the forwards off the bench.
Folkes said he would play some back-rowers in the centres in trials against Canberra and St George Illawarra with a view to bolstering his depth in the backs.
"There's a fair bit of pressure (for spots) in the back-row and the front-row but not as much as I'd like in the outside backs," Folkes said.
That kind of pressure, rather than outside distractions which destabilise the "family club", is exactly what Folkes is looking for.