Gains: Adam Blair (Storm), Joel Reddy (Eels), John Grant (rugby union), Matthew Bell (Panthers), Tom Humble (Eels), Jack Spencer (Salford), Dane Chisolm (Storm).
Losses: Bryce Gibbs (Sharks), Andrew Fifita (Sharks), Mark Flanagan (St Helens), Jason Cayless (retired), Taniela Tuiaki (retired), Geoff Daniela (Panthers) , Jason Schirnack (Mackay), Robert Lui (Cowboys).
One of the dominant sides of the Telstra Premiership over the past two seasons, Wests Tigers head into 2012 looking to put the pain of consecutive finals heartbreakers behind them. A stunning 22-20 loss to eventual grand finalists the Warriors in the dying moments of their semi-final last year was a sorry end to an otherwise superb season and they will be keen to prove that they have what it takes to get the job done come September.
And on paper, at least, there is no reason why they can’t.
Despite the unexpected departure of halfback Robert Lui in the off-season, the Tigers still boast one of the most lethal spines in the Telstra Premiership – primarily due to the presence of crafty hooker Robbie Farah and the brilliance of Benji Marshall.
The biggest question will be to whom coach Tim Sheens gives first shot the 1 and 7 jerseys. Tim Moltzen, who remains at the club following his contract dispute with St George Illawarra, is certain to fill one of those with exciting newcomer James Tedesco, Mitch Brown and Joel Reddy the other contenders at fullback and rookie Jacob Miller an appealing option in the halves.
Still, it is in the forwards that the Tigers are banking on their recruitment and retention policy to pay dividends after sacrificing the ultra-impressive Andrew Fifita and long-serving prop Bryce Gibbs to make way for Kiwi Test veteran Adam Blair. His arrival adds another dimension to an already imposing pack with Gareth Ellis, Keith Galloway, Chris Heighington and youngster Aaron Woods certain to ask questions of their opposition in 2012.
Consistency will be the key for the Tigers: until they embarked on their brilliant nine-game winning streak from Round 19 onwards last year, Sheens’ men hadn’t won more than two games in a row and the coach will be keen to see that trend taken care of in the coming months.
The Tigers will expect to steal victory against a new-look Cronulla outfit in their opening game of the season but the real litmus test will come in the following weeks when they face Manly and St George Illawarra. A solid start could well signal the dawn of something special in 2012.
How They’ll Play It: Pull them in through the middle then move the ball wide to take advantage of the extra space. It’s all fairly standard but the Tigers do it particularly well thanks to the Farah-and-Marshall combination. Farah is particularly dangerous around the rucks. In 2011 the Tigers ranked first for dummy-half busts with 12 (five of them by Farah) and second for dummy-half tries with nine. More importantly, when opposition sides start to squeeze in to ward off the threat, the Tigers possess a wonderful ability to get the ball out wide in a flash and catch the defence short. Last season they shifted the ball strongly either left or right on 256 occasions – more than any other team – and topped the league for total line-breaks. Notably, they heavily favour their right side with 140 of those strong shifts to the right and 46 of their regular season tries scored on that side of the field (compared with 28 on the left and 18 through the middle).
Expect HUGE Things From: Aaron Woods. Rated amongst the best front-row prospects in the NRL, Woods has an opportunity to cement his place in the Tigers’ starting 13 in 2012 and will be a strong contender for City Origin honours if he lives up to his potential. Named the club’s Rookie of the Year in 2011, he is a former Australian Schoolboys representative.
Bonus Points: For all their brilliance with the ball in hand, the Tigers had coach Tim Sheens tearing his hair out at times last season with their frustrating lack of consistency. Their 286 errors during the regular season was the worst of all the top-eight sides, the fifth worst in the Telstra Premiership and better only than lowly Canberra, Gold Coast, Penrith and Sydney Roosters.
The Tigers will also be keen to work on the effectiveness of their kicking game. They averaged just 537 metres off the boot in 2011 – better than only the Sydney Roosters – while the 11 tries they scored from kicks were the fewest in the NRL.
They’re Going To Really Miss: Andrew Fifita. A reluctant loss, the fiery young front-rower proved himself to be a genuine game-breaker in 2011 thanks to his big fend and raw power. Widely tipped to be a star in the making, his move to Cronulla this season is a huge blow for Wests Tigers.
It’s Time To Deliver: Tim Moltzen. Blessed with talent, Moltzen caused a huge stir in the off-season after reneging on a deal to join St George Illawarra in 2012. The Tigers backed him to the hilt, insisting they had never agreed to release him from his current deal, but they will be watching with interest to see if the 23-year-old repays their faith in him. His presence is all the more important now that Robert Lui is no longer at the club.
How’s Their Depth: Pretty solid. The arrival of Joel Reddy from Parramatta provides the club with plenty of options out wide – where he can play at fullback, centre or wing, while coach Sheens also has options when it comes to the fullback and halfback spots. It’s a similar scenario up front, with Aaron Woods pressuring Galloway and Blair for a starting spot. The arrival of Matthew Bell and the presence of Matt Groat and Liam Fulton adds plenty of depth in the forwards. Still, the fitness of their key players remains crucial to their success – there is no replacing Marshall and Farah.
Under-20s: A new coach and a new-look squad means 2012 remains somewhat of an unknown quantity for the Tigers’ under-20s, yet head coach Todd Payten – fresh from calling it quits on his impressive 16-season playing career – is confident that his boys can reach the finals for the second consecutive year after finishing seventh in 2011.
“I think we’re quite capable of going a long way in the competition, it’s just all those variables you’ve got to rely on,” Payten explained. “It’s not just form and injuries of our grade but first grade as well. I’m yet to experience all of that so it will be a learning year.”
Nevertheless, Payten admits that with only a handful of players remaining from last season, he will field a relatively young squad in 2012 so development remains his primary concern.
“Going on what Tim (Sheens) has told me, he expects them to be fit and disciplined,” he said. “While we’ll be out to win every game it’s more about development and getting those two things right in case they get called up to first grade.”
The Tigers are expecting big things from back-rower Jesse Sue, hooker Ben Saunders and former rugby union star Joel Luani this season while all eyes will no doubt be on Payten himself as he makes the transition from player to coach.
“It’s different. I’m learning a lot as I go,” Payten said. “I’m definitely paying a lot closer attention to what the coaches say or do. I’m getting a lot of help from the people around me and learning a lot from them. I’m enjoying it.”
The Coach: Tim Sheens was under immense pressure just two years ago but top-four finishes in 2010 and 2011 have put an end to any such speculation. The truth is that Sheens is part of the furniture at the Tigers these days – having been there since 2003 – and the club is well aware of his tight relationship with Marshall and co. His job is in no significant danger in the foreseeable future although no doubt the man himself would be frustrated by his side’s near misses the past two years.
Predicted Finish: The Tigers should be aiming for a third consecutive top-four finish this season given the overall quality of their squad. And if they can find the consistency that has eluded them since their 2005 premiership success, a top-two finish isn’t out of the question. Time will tell if they can finally get the job done when it matters most. We’ll make a conservative play and pencil them in for 4th position.
The Dream Team view from NRL.com's Lone Scout
The value pick: Tim Moltzen comes at a superb price for a likely first-choice halfback.
The gun: With kicks, tackles, line breaks and try assists, Robbie Farah is a real Dream Team all-rounder.