THERE was no secret to the Wests Tigers’ very good, bordering on great, season last year. Fortune favoured them on the injury front; it meant ground announcers read out the names “Benji Marshall” and “Robbie Farah” in all 27 games the black-and-golds played from Round 1 through to the Preliminary Final.
With order the results shone. Their attack was typically mesmerising – they scored 98 tries, the third most by any side – but they were also (some might say uncharacteristically) steely in defence, conceded just 84 four-pointers, the fourth fewest in the comp.
Their roster for 2011 remains largely the same. They’ll miss blockbusting winger Taniela Tuiaki, cruelly forced into early retirement with a chronic ankle injury – but then they were without him for all of 2010. They get back exciting backline star Tim Moltzen. And they’ve acquired former Bulldogs winger Matt Utai on a one-year second-tier contract.
They have a wonderful mix of youth and experience. A fit Wade McKinnon at fullback will be a threat for oppositions and he will allow coach Tim Sheens to experiment with Moltzen. McKinnon carved out a whopping 158 metres in each of his six games last year. Moltzen could even end up at halfback or five-eighth, depending on the form of Robert Lui.
In the forwards they’ll again be strongly led by the creative Farah, with lock Chris Heighington looking to build on his best year in the NRL in 2010 (27 games, 110 metres of territory a game plus 30 tackles).
How They’ll Play It... Tough up front, loose out the back. Their forwards have the desirable mix of size, strength and speed. Props Bryce Gibbs, Keith Galloway (good for 110 metres a pop and 22 tackles), Todd Payten and Andrew Fifita are a formidable rotation; back-rowers Gareth Ellis, Liam Fulton (five try assists), Simon Dwyer and Heighington are all skilful and will be running good angles 10 metres out from the opposition’s line.
The centre pairing of Chris Lawrence and Blake Ayshford should be ready to hit peak form after their first full year together (they both played more than 20 games), and winger Beau Ryan will be looking to add even greater maturity to his game after an impressive 2010.
But Marshall is the key. He played opposition backs like a snake charmer last year, making line-break assists for team-mates an NRL-benchmark 23 times. He scored 12 typically ‘Benji’ tries, made 23 try assists and broke 100 attempted tackles. Oppositions should again be fearful; he’s so predictably unpredictable, he’s tough to coach against.
Expect Plenty From... The usual suspects. The Tigers are a “confidence” team. They rely on inspiration; each member plays to their best when their big guns are firing. Golden Boot recipient Marshall is a much more consistent and mature product than the one who secured the joint venture their first premiership in 2005. He won’t have a bad year – but the Tigers’ fortunes may depend on how good his year turns out to be.
Ditto Robbie Farah. The key to his year is shutting out all thoughts of State of Origin and his battle with Michael Ennis for the Blues’ No.9 jersey. If Farah just thinks “club footy” he may even better his 25 try assists, second most in the NRL in 2010.
Lote Tuqiri was another ironman who played all games in 2010. The dreadlocked winger quickly regained his rugby league groove, confirming his value as a tearaway threat and consummate finisher with 18 tries and 123 tackle-breaks, the third most by any winger. Expect a similar input.
They’re Going To Really Miss... No-one, really. Prop Jason Cayless has pulled the plug on his career after missing out on a spot in their top 25, but he played just three games in 2010.
Their depth may be tested come Origin time when Chris Lawrence and Farah are possibly in the Origin mix, and perhaps forwards Chris Heighington and Keith Galloway.
Barring injuries they have nothing to worry about.
It’s Time To Stand Up… Andrew Fifita. It should be a breakout season for the towering 112kg prop. The 21-year-old was a little green in his 22 games last year, when he was in the starting 13 just once and overall averaged just 27 minutes on the park. But even in that short time he shone, averaging 71 metres and making 15 tackles. He appeared to lose Sheens’ confidence approaching the big games but with a solid mentoring in the off-season expect him to step up.
Big things are also expected from boom second-rower Simon Dwyer. He’ll get more than the 36 minutes of game time he got last year and will add sting in defence.
Coach Watch... Veteran Tim Sheens heads into his ninth year at the Tigers (and his 26th overall) without any firm idea as to whether he’ll be holding the clipboard there again in 2012. Chances are the job is his if he wants to continue, but with 2011 looming as one of those “musical chairs” years for coaches, 60-year-old Sheens may wish to wait and see what vacancies open up – and where. Souths… Dragons…Cowboys… maybe even Newcastle. Yep, there will be movement at the stations this year and Sheens will certainly be targeted by someone. It will then all come down to him.
They’ll Be Boosted By… The return of Tim Moltzen. Sheens was excited by what Moltzen displayed in 2009, mostly from fullback, when he was the side’s chief kick-returner averaging more than 10 metres a run. He also scored 12 tries, made 18 line-breaks and 76 tackle-breaks in 22 appearances.
A knee injury ended his 2010 season after five games (he still tallied five try assists) but now he’s recovered the 22-year-old will become an important cog in the Tigers’ backline, either as starting fullback, or halfback, possibly five-eighth, or perhaps even off the bench.
Sheens won’t look to rush him back too soon; he has the luxury of specialist Wade McKinnon in the No.1 jersey, plus Robert Lui will start the season in the No.7 inside Marshall. But Moltzen will surely be mentioned in newspaper column inches before the first month is out.
The Tigers have also invested in innovation, with High Performance Manager Steve Folkes tipping them into the value of using an altitude chamber to aid their fitness and hasten recovery from injuries. Every little bit helps if you’re going to keep your key men on the park week in, week out.
Predicted finish... The Tigers went within one agonising point of making the grand final last year. They were a dominant force all year, despite missing some key personnel at various stages and Tim Moltzen for all but five games. They’ll get great continuity from fielding basically the same unit and should be strong in the middle third of the draw, when they pocket their two byes and play four home games. They are minor premiership contenders – although they need to get rid of their “brain explosion” losses like the surprise 50-10 capitulation to Souths last year. We’ll say 2nd.
Under-20s... New recruit halfback Jacob Miller (ex-Roosters) has been turning heads with his application after training with the first grade squad in the off-season. He’ll be joined in the halves by 17-year-old five-eighth Curtis Sironen, son of Balmain legend Paul, who played a handful of games at the end of 2010 and impressed coach Grant Jones. The mentor is hopeful the side won’t lose talented back-rower Ben Murdoch-Masila for any extended period in first grade after the 20-year-old was earmarked for first grade by Tim Sheens late last year. Jones is looking to build on last year’s disappointment of missing the finals by one competition point.
Comings… Mosese Fotuiaka (Keebra Park High School), Marika Koroibete (Fiji), Jacob Miller (Roosters), Teqele Nayarvovo (Otahuhu Leopards), Ratu Tagive (Bulldogs), Evander Waitoa (Wellington).
Goings… Jason Cayless (retired), Daniel Fitzhenry (Southcity, Group 9 NSW), David Gower (Dragons), Tame Tupou (Redcliffe Dolphins), Taniela Tuiaki (retired).