Six keys for the Wests Tigers' finals campaign
This year's finals series is shaping as one of the most evenly contested in NRL history with a late flurry of injuries, suspensions and form streaks throwing the Premiership race wide open.
As the Tigers prepare for their biggest match of the season thus far, we've taken a look at the six key factors in their quest for success in the 2011 NRL finals.
1. The Lawrence factor
When Chris Lawrence dislocated his hip in March, Wests Tigers’ team doctor Donald Kuah believed the injury could possibly end his career, but the 22-year-old centre was determined to return and did so against the Eels in round 18, running into form before tearing his hamstring in the Tigers round 22 victory over the Dragons.
Lawrence is now returning for the third time this year, when he has played he has been a force and he will have to be again to take on the might of Mark Gasnier before combating some equally dangerous centres throughout the NRL finals.
2. Scintillating spine
Tim Moltzen, Benji Marshall, Robert Lui and Robbie Farah have cemented themselves as arguably the best attacking spine in the NRL.
Marshall, who was unlucky to miss out on the Dally M Medal with the five-eighth leads the NRL for try assists (24) and is second for line break assists (25). The big four boasted 30 tries between them for the regular season and if they can replicate that form they will go deep into September.
3. The importance of an early win
When the Tigers beat the Dragons in the preliminary final of the 2005 season the Tigers were victorious in the Grand Final, beating the Cowboys 30-16. In 2010 eventual premiers, St George beat the Tigers in the preliminary final by the narrowest of margins, before going on to win the competition.
These are the only two finals clashes between the two sides and with the winner going on to win the competition on each occasion, it’s a good omen for the victor of Friday night’s clash.
4. Lote’s luck
After battling a broken arm and a serious ankle injury early in the season winger Lote Tuqiri has added another dimension to the potent Tigers backline.
Ruled out for practically the whole season, a question mark remains over the 31-year-old’s fitness and whether he can provide a threat for the whole 80 minute
The former Kangaroo and Wallaby has a depth of experience in pressure games second to none in the Tigers line up, his insight, along with his skill and attacking prowess, is invaluable to the club.
5. Grand memories
The last time the Tigers won eight straight was in 2005 when they won their first premiership since Wests and Balmain combined in 2000. A win on the weekend will notch up nine in a row and keep them rolling.
The question remains though, do they need a loss? To win the competition without losing they would have to win at least 11 straight matches.
6. Missing the man
Robert Lui missed 81 tackles in the regular season to be the worst defender at the club and Benji Marshall was not far behind on 69.
Running at the Tigers halves could prove fruitful for a big Dragons’ side and for any of their opponents through the finals. The Tigers also have the third-worst defence of any team in the top eight, having let in 430 points so far this season, which could hurt them against stingy defensive units such as Melbourne, Manly and Brisbane.