Gains: Braith Anasta (Roosters), Jack Buchanan (Dragons), Masada Iosefa (Panthers), Eddy Pettybourne (Rabbitohs), Bodene Thompson (Titans).
Losses: Gareth Ellis (Hull FC), Chris Heighington (Sharks), Junior Moors (Storm), Beau Ryan (Sharks).
This time last year Wests Tigers were hot premiership favourites. They’d been semi-finalists in 2010 and 2011, and welcomed forceful Adam Blair from the Storm. It was a dream team – thundering big forwards and super-slick backs. They looked good… but that’s as far as it went.
And although they won their first round game against Cronulla (in golden point), their fortunes went the way of rookie James Tedesco’s knee – shot as if by poison dart.
Surely it must get better. Actually, scratch that – it will get better. Look at the names: Anasta, Ayshford, Blair, Farah, Fulton, Galloway, Lawrence, Marshall, Moltzen, Pettybourne, Sironen, Tedesco, Tuqiri, Utai, Woods. It’s an all-star cast, a crack outfit.
Yet they were last year too. Why should it be different?
Simple: new players, new coach (in Mick Potter) and new attitude.
To finish in the top four of this Telstra Premiership you can’t just turn up. Team members must play close to their best each week. It’s no easy feat. Every team can beat every other one. But if the Tigers play up to their capabilities - consistently - they should end up thereabouts come September. And from there, if they put their best feet forward when it counts, they can win the whole thing.
How They’ll Play It
From their own half the Tigers will (mostly) play as everyone does. They’ll pound the ball up with hit-ups from big units – Keith Galloway, Aaron Woods, and the two Matts - Bell and Groat. They’ll have their wingers – Lote Tuqiri, Matt Utai and new cult hero Marika Koroibete – bash them out of the danger zone from dummy-half. They’ll give their edge-running back-rowers Liam Fulton (who topped their tackle count in 2012 with 39 a game), Eddy Pettybourne (10 runs a game for the Bunnies in 2012) and Adam Blair – a little of licence. And then they’ll hoof it.
In defence they’ll wrestle, hold up runners, slow the play-the-ball, and try to ‘win the ground’. This is not the science of the V2 rocket. But... they’ll need to do better than the 38 missed tackles they notched every 80 minutes last year – the second worst record in the league.
It’s with the ball in the other mob’s half that the Tigers have a point of difference. Indeed all bets are off. They play without structure or rules. They toss the ball to their fancy-pants, creative types and watch them do their thing. And from there anything can happen. For Wests Tigers have the fanciest-pants man of them all – Benjamin Quentin Marshall. And he is different.
Different? Marshall could out-trick Houdini. His body language is another language. He is the funkiest stepping five-eighth the game’s ever seen. His passes are ‘no-look’ – but he knows where they’re going. He still has the flick-out-the-back, the double-pump, the kangaroo hop-step-and-jump. But he’s also driving the team around with five-star general, military precision. Consider this: in a team that failed to make the top eight, Marshall nevertheless led the NRL for try assists (35) and line-break assists (32 – six clear of Johnathan Thurston).
It’s his work two off the ruck that so befuddles and frightens defensive tacticians. Taking the ball in two hands he’ll run straight, sideways, or a combination thereof – even backwards – before firing flat balls, short balls or one-handed, no-look flicks to his three-quarters wide – Chris Lawrence, Tim Moltzen, Blake Ayshford, boom colt James Tedesco. Or he’ll keep it tight and hit Blair, Pettybourne, Bodene Thompson. Or he’ll go himself. Or kick. Or all the above. Every player on the field is a target at all times. He’s a dangerous man.
But the Tigers have other weapons. Robbie Farah will probe and snipe from dummy-half, back up breaks and dish sympathetic pill to willing hard chargers. Expect Braith Anasta to play like an alternate five-eighth. He’s not getting faster, Braith, but his ball-play and kicking remain top shelf. Expect Curtis Sironen to play a similar role – big fellow who can do a bit. Expect all the above to grubber, chip-and-chase, and punt for leaping men wide – the latter the go-to, fifth-tackle try-scoring play in today’s game.
But mostly, expect magic from the No.6.
Expect HUGE Things From
It took just five minutes of the Tigers’ season opener against the Sharks last year to realise what Tim Sheens saw in fullback James Tedesco. There he was, on debut, this 19-year-old kid, hitting a hole – Bang! Through! – tearing down-field as the packed Sunday arvo Leichhardt crowd went up as one – “GO!” Yet before half an hour was up he was felled. It was one of the heartbreakers of 2012. And we felt ripped off. Kid looked good.
But here he is, back amongst it and it’s great to see. Now – let’s see him move.
With player movement to the Sharks, Storm and the depths of Hull (a big shout-out to you, Gareth Ellis), and the introduction of new blood, there’s a fresh feel at the Tigers’ training base at Concord Oval. Marshall’s been given his head. Anasta’s been given a two-year contract, and feels like a new kid at school. Pettybourne, Blair and Thompson are pushing each other in the gym. The new coach was going down the mines – literally – before this appointment opened up. Things are fresh and bubbling.
The Question Mark
Where will they play Anasta? He’ll likely have 11, 12 or 13 on his back – but he’s a ball-player, a five-eighth more than a back-rower. And what of Sironen, a similar sort of player? And what of Fulton whose preferred position is lock? Can you have two, or three, locks? Can you have two or three five-eighths? Word is Benji will play where Benji wants to play – and his preferred position is five-eighth. And what of halfback? If we assume Jacob Miller has dibs on the No.7 and James Tedesco is fullback, where do they put Benji’s best mate Tim Moltzen? Time will tell.
Who Needs To Lift?
The forward pack, for sure. Last year the Tigers averaged just the second-fewest metres across the park by any team. Only Woods and Galloway topped triple figures in metres gained. And as a unit they were hardly forceful, punching out just the third-fewest tackle-busts (only 30 a game).
Adam Blair’s arrival at Leichhardt was a big reason many pundits – this one included – anointed the Tigers premiership favourites early in 2012. Then he produced very little. His season stats were a paltry 72 metres of territory gained every match, and three line-breaks all season. Indeed he looked listless, almost bored. Needs to lift, alright.
How’s Their Depth?
The Tigers have quality all over. Tedesco and Moltzen will battle for the No.1. Three quality wingers – Tuqiri, Utai and revelation Koroibete (averaged 128 metres and six tackle-breaks a game) – compete for two spots. Centres include Lawrence (nine line-breaks in 2012), Ayshford, Joel Reddy and 21-year-old Tim Simona. The halves? See ‘The Question Mark’ above – they’re overflowing. Back row? Tick. Front row? Busting out with big boppers. Even at hooker where Farah has a safe hold, the back-up is talented former Panthers rake, Masada Iosefa. Depth? They run deeper than The Deep.
Dream Team Bankers
If you want someone on the field for 80 minutes, who’ll touch the ball more than anyone, who’ll roll grubbers in-goal, who’ll assist try-scorers to crash over or fly through the air, who’ll score the odd try and make 20 tackles a week, look no further than Farah. In just 15 games last year he still made the second-most try assists by any hooker (seven) as well as the second-most line-breaks (six). Other notables include Marshall (average 51 points in 2012) and Woods (average 50), the 2012 Dream Team Prop of The Year. Jacob Miller ($127,700) and James Tedesco ($141,600) could be bargains if Potter starts them and their early form is strong.
Unless the Tigers lose 20 straight or he doesn’t gel with the players and management, or both, Mick Potter is safe for 2013. In fact, he’s in a good position. Make the eight and he’s improved them. And if he can get these talented Tigers running about with freedom, backing themselves, expressing themselves, and doing little things right, they’re a top-four team-in-waiting. And Potter will be anointed: hero.
Coach Todd Payten welcomes back 15 players from the squad that won last year’s premiership, including Matt Mulcahy (five tries and five line-breaks in just eight games) who won the Jack Gibson Medal for best on ground in the grand final. Giant winger David Nofoaluma (22 line-breaks, 17 tries and 138 metres a match in 2012), now a full-time member of the first grade squad, should still get game time in the -20s.
This correspondent is prepared to run against the grain and suggest the Tigers will be the big improvers in 2013. Farah and perhaps Aaron Woods aside, they won’t experience too much disruption during the Origin period, which will ensure continuity. They could end up as high as fourth. A safe bet is the bottom half of the eight.