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Star England prop James Graham will be leading from the front again for the Bulldogs this season.

1. Dark cloud lifted

At the start of the 2013 season, some players were told not to talk to Ben Barba. By the end of the season, some didn't even want to. With an internal club suspension, off-field rumours and short-term and long-term ankle injuries, Barba never recaptured his 2012 form – and the season-long stage-show surrounding the most important figure in Belmore almost-singlehandedly ruined the campaign of a club that had held genuine premiership credentials. 

In the end, the 2012 Dally M Medallist appeared 16 times for the Bulldogs but was a shadow of his former self. Barba eventually negotiated an early release out of the burning limelight of Sydney and into the familial surrounds of Brisbane, ending a marriage with a club that had pinned so much of their hope in him. 

With Barba gone, the slate is wiped clean and the birth of a new superstar, someone like Josh Reynolds, awaits. 

2. Pressure lifted

More was expected from the 2012 grand finalists and for a number of reasons, the Bulldogs wilted under the pressure. The Barba fiasco, ill-timed injuries, brain-snap suspensions and bigger-than-usual target on their heads all combined to sap the energy out of a side that didn't have a lot of depth. 

Credit goes to Des Hasler though, who still managed to lead his team to a finals berth, but in the end they were the only team that didn't look like they belonged. 

Without their superstar fullback in 2014, they will no longer be as big a target as they once were. Instead, the Bulldogs will be a team flying under the radar, and that's exactly where Dessie thrives. 

3. They don't miss much

For all their misgivings in 2013, the Bulldogs presented themselves as the best tackling team in the competition. Put it down, once again, to the coaching prowess of Hasler, with the two-time premiership winning coach instilling enough grit in his side to concede a league-low 21 missed tackles per game – one less than eventual premiers Sydney Roosters. 

Consider too that the Bulldogs were among the best half dozen teams in offloads conceded, line breaks conceded and metres conceded, and you can well pretty much guarantee that Hasler's men certainly have the right defensive framework to begin their 2014 campaign. 

4. Healthy big men

Granted, most teams are relatively healthy at this stage of the pre-season, but having the likes of James Graham (suspension), Sam Kasiano (injury), Tony Williams (form) and even young bookend David Klemmer (injury) on the paddock after Christmas will be a godsend for Hasler. 

Without the likes of Kasiano, Pritchard and Graham for most of the first two months of 2013, the Bulldogs struggled to a 1-5 record over the first six weeks of the season. 

Now with the quartet fit and firing – World Cup trio Graham, Pritchard and Kasiano in particular will be match fit – a strong start to the year beckons. 

5. Des knows best

Last but not least, the Des factor. Four grand finals in the past six years speaks for itself, but what doesn't is the way he kept his side competitive all the way into the elimination final against Newcastle last season. 

In a turbulent year, the wily mentor – together with a strong management team – coaxed everything he could out of a squad that could've thrown in the towel at any point. Get rid of the dramas that engulfed the club last year, and watch Hasler weave more magic. 

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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