Wests Tigers 2014 Season Preview
With the always-eventful-but-just-as-stressful Benji Marshall era brought to a miserable end last September, Concord is now in a full-scale youth movement in 2014.
Towards the end of last season, stories regarding coach Mick Potter's imminent axing swirled faster than a Nines game on steroids, but the rookie NRL coach hung onto his clipboard by the skin of his teeth.
Now he looks to build an empire with a class of kids barely out of school.
Not since the introduction of the under-20s will the NRL have seen a bigger generational change than this year's Tigers, with just seven players on the club's roster over the age of 27.
To wit: with all the gravitas of 80 minutes of NRL football between them, teenage prodigies Luke Brooks and Mitchell Moses are already household names across inner Sydney.
In Brooks's case in particular, a rookie hasn't been met with this much anticipation and expectation ahead of a season since Brad Fittler debuted as a 17-year-old.
But there are ripples of excitement, fervour and hope for many of their promising juniors through the entire list.
There's fullback James Tedesco and his glorious Nines and World Cup campaign; the aerial prowess of David Nofoaluma; the raw power of Marika Koroibete; the speed and skill of Tim Simona; and then expected breakout seasons from maturing forwards Martin Taupau, Curtis Sironen and Jack Buchanan.
Surprisingly, all seven of them have played less than 26 games. But the list goes on.
There's 20-year-old prop Nathan Brown, who is rated the Tigers' angriest forward since Blocker; fullback Kurtis Rowe looks like a Tedesco clone; and as for Moses... well, he's the nephew of Benny Elias, so he could turn out to be anything.
Having spent the past few years trying to remain relevant in the finals race, there's no question that the club – now under a new governance structure created by the NRL – is now in the initial stages of a rebuilding plan that begins with the youngest roster in the NRL.
The recruitment of experienced quartet Cory Paterson, Keith Lulia, Pat Richards and Dene Halatau will go some way to speeding the learning curve but with the toughest draw in the competition – the Tigers play three of last year's top four teams twice – it may take a while until we see the Tigers emerge as a premiership force.
The club is undoubtedly reeling from the loss of its most popular player since Balmain and Wests Tigers merged 14 years ago, Benji Marshall, and might feel the reverberations for some time. But, beginning with Brooks, there are some hidden gems to unearth this year and finding one of them just might be worth the pain.
Gains: Pat Richards (Wigan Warriors), Dene Halatau (Bulldogs), Cory Paterson (Hull Kingston Rovers), Martin Taupau (Bulldogs), Blake Austin (Panthers), Keith Lulia (Bradford Bulls), Yileen Gordon (Newton)
Losses: Benji Marshall (rugby union), Blake Ayshford (Sharks), Lote Tuqiri (rugby union), Joel Reddy (Rabbitohs), Eddy Pettybourne (Wigan Warriors), Matt Groat (Dragons), Jacob Miller (Hull FC), Brenden Santi (Eels), Shaun Spence (Panthers), Mosese Pangai (Raiders), Manaia Rudolph (Sea Eagles), Yileen Gordon (released)
How They’ll Play It
In a big show of faith, the keys of this car have been handed to a kid on his L-plates. But although Brooks is full of promise, expect veterans Robbie Farah and Braith Anasta to wear a lot of the pressure early on in what will probably be a more regimented style than the Tigers of old which, for most of us, could take some getting used to.
Potter might also take advantage of his side's youthful legs with an up-tempo style of play both in attack and defence, especially if he employs a faster defensive line.
Expect HUGE Things From
Martin Taupau. Potter hasn't shied away from his appraisal of Taupau's pre-season form all summer. The Bulldogs recruit arrived with just 21 games against his name since debuting in 2010, but has been amongst the Tigers' best trainers and is expected to receive plenty of game time.
Aaron Woods and Keith Galloway are already established as Potter's starting front-rowers, but since both have battled to stay on the field in recent years, Taupau could find himself as one of the team's premier big men at some stage this year.
The Question Marks
The Tigers' abysmal defence should've been the biggest red flag when Potter sat down for his season review over the summer. Ranked among the bottom six teams in missed tackles, line breaks conceded, offloads conceded and overall points conceded last year, they also committed the third-most errors and gave away the second-most penalties. Will an influx of inexperienced kids negate their chances of an improved defence?
Who Needs To Lift
We had pencilled in 22-year-old City Origin representative Curtis Sironen for this space before he was ruled out for 12 weeks for a toe fracture during the Auckland Nines. So we instead for the under-achieving Ben Murdoch-Masila. At just 23 years of age, the bullocking second-rower can be considered part of the Tigers' youth brigade but having passed the 50-game mark late last season, time is nigh for the Kiwi to become the destructive weapon the Tigers expected him to be.
How’s Their Depth
Someone seriously needs to set up a Royal Commission into why the football gods are so upset with the Tigers.
Pre-season injuries to Tim Moltzen (kneecap, indefinite), Dene Halatau (ankle, three months), and Sironen (foot, six weeks) mean the club's rotten luck with injuries continues even before a ball has been kicked in anger this season.
Their NSW Cup side will have some players who debuted at NRL level last year, with Joel Luani, Blake Austin, Ava Seumanufagai, Sauaso Sue and Sitaleki Akauola heading the list of possible call-ups.
And not that the Tigers would want to get any younger, but their Andrew Webster-coached Holden Cup side has contains a slew of promising talents in centre Delouise Hoeter, utility Manaia Cherrington and Moses.
NRL Fantasy Bankers
Hooker Robbie Farah (66 points per game) is the Fantasy king in Tigerland, but buying their rookie halfback in Brooks is also a no-brainer, especially if he takes the reins in attack nice and early. Even if he's not your long-term halfback, at $184,000, it's as close as you can get to a guaranteed money-maker. Other bargain buys could also be Taupau ($157,000), centre Chris Lawrence ($155,500) or goal-kicking winger Pat Richards ($206,600).
The knives came out early and often for the patient Potter last year, with the Marshall sideshow the main problem. The rookie coach survived the death knell late in the season but another poor start and it will not take long for the critics to be calling for his head again.
If you're going by how they've started the calendar year, then those footballing gods will ensure the line-up below is going to look far, far different by the end of the year. Those kids the Tigers have are good, but we're not sure they're top-eight good just yet. Even at full health, they're pushing for eighth spot at best.
1. James Tedesco, 2. David Nofoaluma, 3. Tim Simona, 4. Chris Lawrence, 5. Pat Richards, 6. Braith Anasta, 7. Luke Brooks, 8. Aaron Woods, 9. Robbie Farah (c), 10. Keith Galloway, 11. Adam Blair, 12. Curtis Sironen, 13. Liam Fulton. Interchange: 14. Martin Taupau, 15. Ben Murdoch-Masila, 16. Jack Buchanan, 17. Bodene Thompson