At some point in the near future the Gold Coast Titans are destined to have a pre-season free of controversy and sudden departures.
Twelve months after captain Scott Prince was allowed to walk out and head north to the Broncos, Jamal Idris came back from his Christmas break and decided that he wanted to quit the club two years into a five-year deal and join the Panthers in order to be closer to family.
In a swap that leaves the Titans with some money in the bank for future purchases, Brad Tighe arrived on the Gold Coast 24 hours after the deal was done and has all but secured the left centre position for Round 1.
Former Cowboys coach Neil Henry has joined John Cartwright's coaching staff as his assistant and has had a major influence on the side's preparations as they endeavour to improve on last year's ninth-place finish.
Besides a persistent calf strain, Dave Taylor is in the best shape of his career while Albert Kelly has recovered from a foot ailment involving some veins that threatened to require delicate surgery.
Their home ground now goes by the name of Cbus Super Stadium and co-captain Nate Myles is unlikely to be fit for Round 1 but if the Titans can recapture the attitude they displayed in the last month of the 2013 season, there are enough reasons to suggest they can be a threat to even the very best teams in the NRL.
Gains: Maurice Blair (Storm), Paul Carter (Bulldogs), Kalifa Faifai Loa (Cowboys), Christian Hazard (Rabbitohs), Siuatonga Likiliki (Knights), Brad Tighe (Panthers).
Losses: Jordan Atkins (London Broncos), Marmin Barba (Broncos), Hymel Hunt (Storm), Jamal Idris (Panthers), Luke O'Dwyer (retired), Jordan Rankin (Hull FC), Matthew Russell (Warrington).
How They'll Play It
Other than getting Dave Taylor the ball more regularly and pointing him directly at the opposition halfback, there will only be subtle adjustments to the way Titans go about things in 2014. Halves Aidan Sezer and Albert Kelly will build on the complementary combination they developed in their first year together last season while the aggression of Greg Bird and Ryan James up front will ensure the forward pack never takes a backward step. The loss of Idris on the right side will blunt their attack to some extent and much of the responsibility of creating second-phase play will revert to Bird and Taylor who both like to operate on the left. If the speedy Brad Tighe can quickly get a feel for when Taylor is likely to lay on an offload, the Titans may find that the left side of the field is their most productive for attacking sojourns.
Expect HUGE Things From
Prior to a shoulder injury incurred in the opening 20 minutes of the Titans' opening trial against the Warriors, towering prop Ryan James was at the front of the pack in fitness drills and had inked a new contract keeping him at the club until at least the end of the 2017 season. The good news is that the shoulder should be right for Round 1 and New South Wales will have a new forward presence to call on in the Origin arena if James can start the year the way he finished 2013. In the final six games of the year he ran for 164, 201, 164, 169, 176 and 187 metres when promoted to the run-on side. Still just 22 years of age, this will be the year that Ryan James makes a name for himself.
Paul Carter came to the Titans looking for an opportunity to break into the club's healthy stock of back-rowers. Instead, the son of former Panthers great Steve Carter seems set to start the season in the No.9 jersey following some eye-catching pre-season performances. Captain of an Australian Schoolboys team in 2010 that boasted names such as Jack Wighton, David Nofoaluma, David Klemmer, James Tedesco and Tautau Moga, Carter has been dynamic out of dummy-half and his aggressive playing style has some comparing him to Greg Bird. Even if he's not the No.1 choice at hooker, Carter will be a very valuable contributor off the bench.
The Question Marks
Other than whether this is the year Dave Taylor finds the consistency to match the brilliance, the greatest question mark on the Titans remains the penetration of the centre pairing, whoever it is who lines up there. Brad Tighe and Maurice Blair seem to have the inside running but Brad Takairangi, Siuatonga Likiliki and Jamie Dowling are waiting in the wings for their opportunity. With an average of 20.8 points per game the Titans were ranked eighth in the scoring department last year but with no Idris they need to find a new way to put the fear of god into the opposition defence.
Who Needs To Lift?
It's a lot to put one player but a sustained show of effort through 26 rounds from Dave Taylor would take the Titans from finals hopefuls to premiership contenders. With speed and skill to match his brute size, very few players in the NRL are capable of influencing the result of a game in the manner that the 'Coal Train' can. Surfing and his wife's study of nutrition has kept him trim in the off-season and as long as a niggling calf injury is kept at bay there's no reason this shouldn't be the best year of Dave Taylor's career to date.
How's Their Depth?
Talk to the senior members of the squad and they'll tell you that the club has never been as blessed with as greater depth as it boasts in 2014. Every week there will be a couple of very good front-rowers sent back to the Intrust Super Cup while a back-row rotation of Bird, Harrison, Taylor, Ben Ridge and Mark Minichiello gives Cartwright a nice selection to choose from. Pressure is also on incumbent wingers David Mead and Kevin Gordon with Kalifa Faifai Loa, Anthony Don and Steve Michaels all doing their best to impress.
With an average score better than 50 last year, Aidan Sezer is the most prolific of the Titans squad and at $398,000 represents decent bang for your buck. Rookie Paul Carter is going to play plenty of minutes so grab him at the bargain-basement price of $107,000 while Brad Tighe could be a handy pick-up at $166,900. If you're looking for that reliable forward to get you 40 points on a regular basis, it's hard to go past the triumvirate of Greg Bird ($300,800), Nate Myles ($315,400) or Luke Bailey ($287,100).
After reaching the heights of the preliminary finals in 2010, there's no question that pressure is starting to mount on coach John Cartwright. In the year he was awarded a five-year contract extension taking him through until the end of the 2016 season, the Titans finished dead last in 2011 and have failed to make the finals in the two years since. The addition of the experienced Neil Henry to the coaching staff will help lighten some of the load but if the Titans fail to meet expectations again in 2014, Cartwright may find out what the paper his contract is written on is really worth.
The Titans have struggled in the under-20s competition for the past few seasons and have taken steps to rectify that by appointing a full-time under-20s coach for the first time. Ben Woolf comes in from the esteemed Keebra Park High School program with a focus not only on this year's Holden Cup squad but also the junior development programs being put in place at the Titans. Jahrome Hughes, Jamal Fogarty and Matt Beddow have all graduated to the NRL squad but outstanding young half Christian Hazard remains eligible for the under-age competition.
By beating the Roosters and Bulldogs and taking the Storm to golden-point despite being down on troops in the final month of 2013, the Titans showed that success for them rests on attitude and commitment. With a forward pack stacked with representative talent, two skilful young halves and a back three Cartwright ranks as among the best in the NRL, the Titans have a squad capable of finishing in the top six.
1. William Zillman, 2. David Mead, 3. Maurice Blair, 4. Brad Tighe, 5. Kevin Gordon, 6. Aidan Sezer, 7. Albert Kelly, 8. Ryan James, 9. Beau Falloon, 10. Luke Bailey, 11. Greg Bird, 12. Nate Myles, 13. Ashley Harrison. Interchange: 14. Paul Carter, 15. Dave Taylor, 16. Luke Douglas, 17. Ben Ridge.