Gold Coast Titans season preview
Unburdened by expectation, the Titans will start their 2016 campaign with a nice blend of seasoned forwards and a young backline pumped up for the season ahead.
Without a finals appearance since 2010, the Titans were dealt a cruel blow early in the new year when halfback Kane Elgey suffered a season-ending knee injury at training and have been unable to lure a top class centre to take the place vacated by James Roberts who left in December to join the Broncos.
With home games against the Knights and Wests Tigers in the opening three rounds the Titans have the chance to generate momentum early and engender some confidence in the new halves pairing of Tyrone Roberts and Ashley Taylor.
Do that, and a top-eight finish is not beyond them.
Gains and losses
Gains: David Shillington (Canberra Raiders), Nathan Friend (New Zealand Warriors), Zeb Taia (Catalan Dragons), Ashley Taylor (Brisbane Broncos), Tyrone Roberts (Newcastle Knights), Leivaha Pulu (Wyong Kangaroos), Chris McQueen (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Nathan Davis (Parramatta Eels).
Losses: James Roberts (Brisbane Broncos), Nate Myles (Manly Sea Eagles), Aidan Sezer (Canberra Raiders), Dave Taylor (Catalan Dragons), Kevin Gordon (retirement), Shaun Hudson (North Queensland Cowboys), Ben Ridge (retirement), Matthew White (Melbourne Storm), Brad Tighe (retirement), Kalifa Faifai Loa (St George Illawarra Dragons), Beau Falloon (Leeds Rhinos).
What we know
It has been a busy off-season at the arrival and departure lounge at Titans HQ with senior players Nate Myles, Aidan Sezer, Dave Taylor, James Roberts and Beau Falloon replaced by David Shillington, Nathan Friend, Chris McQueen, Tyrone Roberts and Zeb Taia. A devastating season-ending knee injury to Kane Elgey in early January will see Roberts and Ashley Taylor share the playmaking duties and William Zillman has been handed the fullback role on a permanent basis, his work-share arrangement with Josh Hoffman coming to an end. The forward pack has the quality and experience to match any in the competition, it's how the young backs adapt that will be the telling factor.
There are a number of unknowns but the most pressing is how the halves combination of Tyrone Roberts and Ashley Taylor gels. Two very talented ball-players with good turns of speed, Roberts and Taylor are both capable of being match-winners but consistency will be their key performance indicator. Roberts has a chance to assert himself on a team after a five-year stint in the shadows of Kurt Gidley and Jarrod Mullen at Newcastle while Taylor gets to prove that at 20 years of age he is capable of transferring abundant junior potential into the top grade. The Titans also desperately need near career-best seasons from both William Zillman and Josh Hoffman to stabilise a young backline.
Ashley Taylor got a taste of first grade before leaving the Broncos last season but his Round 26 debut was tarnished by a nasty hand injury that saw him leave the field before the half hour mark. Much responsibility now falls on the former Junior Kangaroo and reigning under-20s player of the year to make an immediate contribution to his new NRL team. The club remains on the lookout for a centre to replace James Roberts but in the meantime an opportunity could present itself to former Eel Nathan Davis or exciting speedster Brian Kelly. Winger Greg Leleisiuao could also earn a top-grade call-up in 2016 after impressing at the Auckland Nines.
The forward stocks look strong with a number of contenders for the back row positions while the hooking duties will be contested by Nathan Friend, Daniel Mortimer, Kierran Moseley and Matt Srama. The injury to Elgey has left the halves stocks very thin and there is next to no NRL experience to be found in those players vying for a spot in the centres. The Titans have had a poor run with injuries in recent years and if the same happens again in key positions they could find themselves horribly exposed.
Declared the 'must-have cash cow' of the Titans squad, Ashley Taylor's prospects of plenty of points got a significant boost with the pre-season injury to Kane Elgey. Expected to share the kicking duties with Tyrone Roberts, Taylor's $134,000 price tag is too good to pass up. Handed the fullback spot on a permanent basis, there is plenty of upside to William Zillman ($238,000) while fellow co-captain Nathan Friend ($341,000) is expected to play more minutes than he did last year in averaging 38 points per game.
If Neil Henry can guide the Titans into the finals for the first time since 2010 he will be rewarded by the activation of a contract clause that will see his tenure extended by at least a further 12 months; fall short of that and his position will be under serious threat. In the wake of the Daly Cherry-Evans and James Roberts contract debacles the Titans have been unable to attract a marquee player to their roster which makes Henry's assignment this year a tough one. If he can land a couple of big fish for 2017 the prospect of success on the Coast will look a lot brighter.
The doomsday merchants have only had eyes for the Titans in pre-season betting but there is an irresistible mix of old hard heads in the forwards and exciting young backs that could flourish with a shot of confidence. There were promising signs at the Auckland Nines where they qualified for the semi-finals and then fought back from 20-6 down in a trial against the Eels to level scores at 20-all at full-time. The first two home games of the year are against the Knights and Wests Tigers; win both of those and the Titans will have some momentum to build upon.