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Why league's heartland is pumping

Why league's heartland is pumping
Never have all four western Sydney teams been in the top eight since the NRL's inception in 1998. Until now. Copyright: NRL Photos/Chris Kapetenatis. Credit: NRL Photos/Chris Kapetenalis. Copyright: NRL Photos/Chris Kapetenalis.
The National Rugby League's 'sleeping giant' is no more: can reveal that for the first time since the formation of the NRL  in 1998, all four western Sydney clubs – Penrith, Canterbury-Bankstown, Parramatta and the Wests Tigers – are entrenched in the top eight at the same time.
It's quite the turnaround, considering that this time last year, all four clubs were on the outside looking in, dismissed as irrelevant as they battled challenges on and off the field.
Let's take you back to the first week of April last season:
* The Bulldogs were reeling from revelations their Dally M-winning superstar was struggling with gambling and alcohol problems;

* Parramatta, who trumpeted the signing of new coach Ricky Stuart all pre-season, were on the cusp of the biggest bloodbath in the club's history – and we're not talking on the field;
* Wests Tigers rookie coach Mick Potter was days away from dropping franchise face Benji Marshall, an act that would ultimately culminate in Marshall's exit from the game; and
* The Panthers, well, they were so busy trying to convince everyone about their five-year plan that they seemingly forgot there was the majority of a season left to play.
Yet here we are, 12 months on, and all four teams enter the weekend with a combined 9-1 home record so far in 2014.
All of a sudden the heartland of rugby league is awash with a new-found hope and optimism that their respective teams are in for a finals push that only the Bulldogs tasted last season.

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"I just believe that, all those teams, they've all got a point to prove," says Panthers winger Josh Mansour. "No-one's really looking at us like finals contenders compared to the others. I'm looking at the table and it's pretty close. It's still early days, hopefully the next 10 weeks or whatever, then we can start pointing fingers."

The only people the Panthers haven't impressed so far this year seem to be their own fans, of whom less than 8000 braved the wet to watch a new-found gritty defence overpower Canberra last Saturday night.
"I think the weather had a fair bit to do with that. There was a storm hovering around the whole day and as you saw at the start of the game, I don't think I've ever seen it rain like that. It doesn't help," coach Ivan Cleary defended.
"It'd be nice to get everyone here [against South Sydney on Friday]. It'll definitely be a good game against a good team. And our boys are looking forward to playing back in front of their home crowd."

But then there's the Leichhardt faithful, who showed just how much of a difference their eerily historic ground can make to a team that was among the wooden spoon favourites back in February.
A stirring crowd of 16,000 defied the soggy elements, willing their fearless team to a third upset win over a premiership powerhouse in four weeks. 

"There's a good feel around the club after a good win obviously and there was a good crowd at Leichhardt," observes Wests Tigers centre Chris Lawrence.

"But it's only one week, we've got another one at home, so hopefully we can repeat the performance."

The occasion certainly motivated the Wests Tigers players, who heralded the 2050 postcode of Leichhardt before and after the game.
"Obviously we had a great crowd at Leichhardt, but really looking forward to having a massive crowd out there at Campbelltown. Having two home games in a row is really going to help us and hopefully we can get back to back wins," Lawrence continued.
"But my postcode is 2560, Campbelltown. I'm a Campbelltown junior. Young [David] Nofoaluma - Nof-Zilla - he's led the charge to try and get everyone from Campbelltown there so we can create a new King of Campbelltown."

Parramatta – who are undefeated at home – face defending premiers the Roosters for the second time this season. But they return a different side to the one that got towelled up four weeks ago, with the inclusion of halfback Chris Sandow who is seemingly over his highly-publicized issues off the field. 
And as for the Bulldogs... well, most of their campaign has been spent discussing their roster for 2015, but back-to-back wins over Melbourne and then the Roosters just might keep the Twitter trolls away from CEO Raelene Castle for a week.

"#findafullback's a favourite one that I keep getting all the time, which is funny," Castle told this week.

"I think it's great. They tweet me and say, Raelene Castle for god's sake, #findafullback. It's good fun. You've got to take it in the spirit that it's meant, which is that they're very passionate about the performance of the Bulldogs, and they want to see us win. As do I. No one more than me wants to see that."

It's all made for an entertaining and eventful first six weeks in the west of Sydney that all four clubs - and the NRL - will hope will continue deep into the premiership.
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