Nigel Wall, NRL.com
1. Oh the pain
No question Tim Sheens’s charges will still be hurting after the dramatic nature of their exit in Week Two of last year’s finals series. Most people’s elect as at least grand finalists after their demolition of the Dragons the previous week, the gold-and-blacks were up 18-6 at halftime in their semi-final showdown with the Warriors – before three unanswered tries in the final 30 minutes killed them off. They were always in control… until Krisnan Inu’s match-winner just a minute from the final siren. You can be certain a lot of soul-searching ensued as they fathomed the reasons for their unravelling, with a firm plan established to prevent it happening again.
There’s plenty in the Wests Tigers’ favour in 2012: the age and experience of their squad is nicely balanced, with 16 of their full-time roster tallying more than 50 first grade games, yet no-one with more than 200 to their name. Only Lote Tuqiri and Matt Utai have played for more than a decade. And the representative period, traditionally a drain on top teams, shouldn’t pose problems – between Rounds 7-22 the Tigers face just five teams that made the top eight last year. As we said when previewing the Warriors, pain is a strong motivator. It may well provide the Tigers with the focus they need to dominate in 2012.
2. Blair switch project
Exit Andrew Fifita and Bryce Gibbs, as well as the retired Todd Payten… enter Adam Blair. The former Storm enforcer may have gained notoriety for his unsavoury stoush with Manly’s Glenn Stewart in Round 25 last year but this year he’s hoping for fame and good fortune at the Tigers. Blair’s game suits the Tigers’ pack: he’s a strong runner (average 85 metres, total 25 tackle busts) yet mobile, with good ball skills(his 24 offloads in 2011were the most by a Storm forward) – the perfect complement for the likes of Gareth Ellis, Chris Heighington and Liam Fulton. The only question is whether he plays some minutes in the front row, given that trio’s grip on the back row (Blair played just two of his 23 games up front for the Storm last year). While he has a reputation for no-nonsense go-forward, Blair’s efficiency at felling opposition players is arguably his greatest strength – he boasts career defensive stats of an average 22.6 tackles a game at a whopping 91 per cent effectiveness. Given those numbers you’d expect the Tigers to claw their way to better than their sixth-fewest missed tackles in 2011. Most importantly, Blair is a winner who could become their good luck charm – he has a career success rate of 71 per cent (86 wins from 121 games), with only Manly’s David Williams (76 per cent) singing his team song more often among active NRL players.
3. Who gets ‘custody’?
Tim Sheens’ decision to shift Tim Moltzen to halfback is as much to accommodate an emerging star as plug the vacant scrum base position. Most observers expected Moltzen to be a shoo-in for the custodian’s role – seeing he tallied 31 games at fullback over the past three seasons, and just 11 in the No.7. But the right fit for the team unit this year will see Moltzen don the No.7, covering for the departed Robert Lui, with exciting James Tedesco taking possession of the No.1 jersey. The 19-year-old Australian Schoolboys representative started 2011 playing SG Ball for the Magpies before stepping up to the Toyota Cup, grabbing everyone’s attention with four tries in just his third game in the under-20s. He finished the year with stunning statistics: 12 line-breaks from just 13 games, plus an average 170 metres, seven tackle busts, with nine try assists and eight tries. Tedesco is set to leave his stamp on the NRL in his rookie season the way Josh Dugan did for the Raiders in 2009.
4. Benji Marshall
The Kiwi skipper, who turns 27 this month, enters 2012 in the prime of his football career. There’s no more dazzling playmaker in rugby league (Marshall’s the only player to eclipse 20 try assists in each of the past three seasons) and his direction will once again define the Tigers’ premiership assault. He’ll be looking to pick up where he left off last year, when he led the NRL for try assists (27) and scored the most tries by any half (13 in the No.6). Importantly, Marshall will relish reuniting with Tim Moltzen in the halves – the pair have an enviable 9-2 winning record with Moltzen wearing the No.7.
5. A Lote at stake
While Marshall is in his prime, Lote Tuqiri will be focused on a return to his best form as he enters the twilight of his career. The dual international had a horror season with injuries in 2011, playing just nine games for an unimpressive return of 78 metres a game – his lowest numbers since his debut season in 1999. The 32-year-old will be hoping he can recapture some of the dash and vigour he showed in 2010 when he played all 27 games and scored 18 tries, carving out 124 metres a game and 123 tackle-breaks, each the third most by a winger. And he’ll be looking to erase the bad memories of his last touch in 2011 when his fumble while leaping to field a bomb resulted in Krisnan Inu crossing for the try that knocked the Tigers out of the premiership race. This year is the last in Lote’s three-year deal with the Tigers; he’ll be switched on, for sure.