Wests Tigers Season Preview
Out with the old and in with the new. Or in the Wests Tigers' case, in with the young.
Even the coach got a facelift over the summer as the joint venture club opted not to renew the contract of maligned clipboard holder Mick Potter and instead handed the reins to a (younger) man in Jason Taylor, who looks as if he hasn't aged a wrinkle since packing it up 15 seasons ago.
Speaking of packing up, around 850 games worth of talent went out the door late last year, most of those from the engine room. And without much heading in the other direction, what was an already youthful room is going to feature a lot more One Direction-like wave hairstyles than veterans Pat Richards and Keith Galloway will be braced for.
But never fear, Leichhardt faithful, there's a reason why the Concord suits are ready to hand the keys over to these bad boys.
Yes, halfback Luke Brooks, five-eighth Mitchell Moses and fullback James Tedesco are still on their L-plates. But together they resemble a prodigious boy band that even at their age, can win over more than just the fangirls of Campbelltown.
Throw in the renewed focus of a skipper in Robbie Farah eager to turn over a new leaf off the field this season, a prop in Aaron Woods who was the frontman for the Kangaroos in the Four Nations, and a centre in Tim Simona who is fast becoming one of the top strike centres in the league, then it's a bubbling subterfuge of talent that Taylor might just get cranking enough for a shot at the top eight.
There'll be lessons, no doubt, like the ones they'll learn during the three games they're likely to play without Farah and Woods due to Origin commitments. Or the testing seven-week period during Rounds 14-21 that includes clashes against the Rabbitohs, Sea Eagles, Panthers, Broncos, Roosters and Storm.
But they'll be teaching a few of their own too, and courtesy of Channel Nine's 11 Wests Tigers games over the first 20 rounds, you can watch them free to air.
Gains and Losses
Gains: Chance Peni (Knights), Josh Drinkwater (London Broncos), Kevin Naiqama (Panthers)
Losses: Braith Anasta (retired), Liam Fulton (retired), Cory Paterson (Salford Red Devils), James Gavet (Broncos), Adam Blair (Broncos), Jarred Farlow (French Rugby), Blake Austin (Raiders), Jy Hitchcox (Featherstone Rovers), Bodene Thompson (Warriors), Nathan Brown (Rabbitohs).
There have been a lot more goings than comings, particularly where the forward pack in concerned, so Jason Taylor will be hoping some of his promising young forwards are ready to make the step up.
What We Know
We know Farah belongs in the NRL elite, with or without the drama that followed him around like a black plague off the field last year. We know Woods isn't too far off reaching that status either – good Tigers sets will start with those two. And we know Pat Richards is almost peerless with kickoffs, drop goals, and goals in general – good Tigers sets will end with two points from him.
Everything in between is an unknown. Brooks and Moses, extraordinary talents they may be, are still unproven quantities. The same goes for their back row, of which only the inconsistent Curtis Sironen is a certain starter. There are even question marks on whether the fragile bodies of Tedesco and winger David Nofoaluma can withstand the rigours of an entire calendar year. And that's not even getting into whether Taylor can build a strong enough to defence that needs to improve tenfold if they intend on battling for a finals spot.
Lamar Liolevave. The Tigers are big on all their kids, so it came as no surprise that they re-signed this hulking brute on a two-year deal late last year after an impressive Holden Cup campaign that netted him ten tries and 15 line breaks. But get this: after half a pre-season under new coach Jason Taylor, the Keebra Park graduate is a realistic shot of taking the gaping hole left by Bodene Thompson on their right edge this season. He's a rookie to watch all right, possibly from Round 1.
Room For Improvement
Where does Taylor start? Perhaps with some of these numbers which his inherited side produced under his predecessor last season: Worst for line breaks conceded and points conceded; second last in metres, missed tackles and errors, third worst for penalties conceded, tries, try assists, line breaks and points. He can fix all that and more in less than 12 months, can't he?
Utility Tim Moltzen will provide some valuable depth, given his ability to adapt at fullback or in the halves. Youngster Kurtis Rowe played some games in the No.1 jumper last season, while London Broncos recruit Josh Drinkwater will also prove a handy back up for Moses and Brooks. Off-season signing Kevin Naiqama is also an astute buy for Taylor, and will start the season in first grade due to an injury to Nofoaluma. In the forwards, Woods, Galloway and Taupau will continue to rotate in the front row, with Matthew Lodge, Jack Buchananan and Ava Seumanufagai taking the leftover minutes. The back row is where it gets interesting, and we may well see Taylor experiment with Sitaleki Akauola, Dene Halatau, Salesi Funaki, Brenden Santi and Liolevave. Look for the sprightly Manaia Cherrington to play spot minutes behind Farah as well.
Farah ($588,000) scored more Fantasy points per game than any other player in the NRL last year, and is a great captaincy option for your side. Tedesco ($342,000) could be a revelation if he stays fit, and Woods ($426,000) is a solid option up front, while there may be value on offer in the form of Moses ($169,000) and Halatau ($184,000).
Join the Wests Tigers Verified Fantasy League - League code: SKWJZM5N
Whether he realised it or not, Potter walked the coaching tightrope for most of his two-year reign in Concord, and was then caught in the crossfire of Farah and Gorden Tallis' public stoush midway through last season. Whether it was his fault the club failed to make the finals or not, the self-effacing mentor was put out of his coaching misery by September. Now the clipboard is in the hands of Taylor, who will hope to transfer the success he enjoyed under the tutelage of Trent Robinson at Bondi and prove that he is no longer the same coach that was moved on after an altercation with David Fa'alogo at South Sydney.
The team here at NRL.com are predicting more lessons for the Tigers' school of kids this year, and some of them could painful. Both their halves are under the age of 21, and they have a severe lack of depth in the second row. They'll have their bright spots, sure, but not enough to get them into the bright lights of September. NRL.com prediction: 13th.