Season Preview: Wests Tigers

THE Wests Tigers would’ve made the 2009 grand final… had they made the top eight over their concluding weeks. That’s the vibe most Tigers supporters concocted late in 2009, such was the hot form of Benji and co at the back end of the premiership.<br>&nbsp;<br>But with season 2010 now upon us, that is wholly irrelevant. All that matters now is that Lote Tuqiri walks safe and sound off the plane at Kingsford Smith Airport – whenever that may be –&nbsp; and is ready to become one of the Tigers’ primary attacking weapons for another assault on the title. <br><b><br>Their Keys To Success...</b> Everyone knows that when the Wests Tigers have got it goin’ on, they’ve really got it goin’ on! But, as the saying goes, when the going gets tough, the tough get going – and the most entertaining outfit in the competition just weren’t tough enough last year. In four of the six games decided by two points or less, the Wests Tigers lost four of them. <br><br>Acquiring a game-winner in the form of Lote Tuqiri may turn that in their favour. <br><b><br>Expect Plenty From... </b>After finally figuring out his home was at five-eighth, Benji Marshall really started running rings around his opposites. The New Zealand captain lit up the NRL through August – along with that Hayne bloke at the Eels – with a jaw-dropping arsenal of flick and no-look passes. <br><br>With a clearer off-season position-wise, a better pack and the addition of Lote, this could be Benji’s best year yet. <br><br><b>They’re Really Going To Miss... </b>Um, no-one, really. They’ve experienced a stack of changes to last year’s group, but none of them will hurt, as they’ve been adequately replaced. <br><br>The only one that might come back to bite them is the move of Dene Halatau to the Bulldogs. Last season wasn’t one of his better years and thea change of scenery will do him the world of good. A member of the Kiwi squad that won the 2008 World Cup, Halatau will flourish under Kevin Moore and only then will the Wests Tigers really regret the loss of their 2005 premiership-winning lock. <br><br>Elsewhere, John Morris (to Cronulla), Dean Collis (to Sharks as well) and Daine Laurie (to Penrith) also had their moments in Wests Tigers colours, but their absence in 2010 won’t cause any ripples of regret. <br><b><br>It’s Time To Deliver...</b> Chris Heighington. It was no surprise to see a Country rep be outshone by an international one in Gareth Ellis – but no-one expected this wide a gap between the Australian and the Brit. Arguably Wests Tigers’ best forward two years ago, the 27-year-old’s minutes, metres and tackles were all down on 2008. <br><br>But his biggest fall was in tackle breaks, going down from 93 to a paltry 37, leaving Ellis as the standout in an otherwise uninspiring pack last year. <br><br>They’re one of the hotshot packs this year, but to have a realistic tilt at the title, they’ll need Heighington to re-discover the form that had him as a NSW bolter a few years ago.<br><br><b>Coach Watch...</b> He’s got it fairly east at national level, but boy is Tim Sheens in for a big year at club level! <br><br>Everyone outside of Concord reckons their 2005 premiership was a fluke, and the longer they stay out of the finals, they’ve got no comeback. Okay, it might’ve been four years ago but the fact remains: if Sheensy doesn’t get them there with this talented squad, then the faithful mightn’t have so much faith in the longest-serving coach in the game. <br><b><br>They’re All The Better For...</b> Quite obvious really: Lote Tuqiri. Even if he hasn’t played a game yet, his status as a dual international has already sent shivers through opposing wingers. <br><br>While he doesn’t have as big a mouth as the other famous rugby return product Wendell Sailor, he arguably has a more expansive game. Wests Tigers looked dangerous enough in their run home last year, but you can almost see Lote working in tandem with powerhouse team-mate Taniela Tuiaki and running off Benji’s magic feeds. Welcome back, Lote.&nbsp; &nbsp;<br><br><b>Predicted finish...</b> Every club says they need a good start, but it really can’t be truer for the Tigers. Perennial strong season-finishers, a strong first third of the year is crucial in order to have a cushion at the back end. <br><br>Early confidence is needed to validate all the optimism surrounding their star signings. So with their first give games against the Orford-less Sea Eagles, wooden spoon Roosters, grand finalists Parramatta, and two teams outside the eight last year – the Raiders and Cowboys – a 4-1 start could be on the cards. <br><br>If they can get some early wins on the board, they should sneak into the top eight. We’ll say 7th. <br><b><br>Toyota Cup...</b> Halfback Robert Lui had a strong NRL debut season last year and there are certainly more where he came from. Last year’s Toyota Cup runners-up have an abundance of kids waiting to grab their chance. <br><br>Hooker Matt Hyland made 200 tackles more than any other player in the comp, while fullback Jake Mullaney was the Toyota Cup’s top points-scorer. Both of them return for another year in the under-20s, while Jay Florimo, son of North Sydney Bears great Greg, gets his opportunity in the halves. <br>