Wests Tigers: 2018 NRL Season Preview
Finals footy simply has to happen for the Wests Tigers, who have recruited heavily in a number of positions as coach Ivan Cleary looks to make his team top eight contenders.
If new halves combination Josh Reynolds and Luke Brooks click early on, the joint venture outfit has the potential to shock a few of their more fancied rivals, especially at home games played at Leichhardt Oval and Campbelltown.
Look for prop and new recruit Russell Packer to lead by example in the engine room, while winger David Nofoaluma knows his way to the tryline.
Coach Cleary will happily take on the underdog tag most weeks, and you can bet his team won't ever be short of enthusiasm.
The obvious answer is personnel. Gone are three of the Wests Tigers supposed "big four" but enter the passion of Josh Reynolds and return of Benji Marshall and there is already enough to like about the new-look side.
If the Wests Tigers have lacked anything in the past it is go-forward. In the past five years the club has finished 11th, 15th, 12th, 12th and 15th respectively in run metres per season – a statistic simply not good enough at NRL level. It is no surprise the club has missed the finals on every occasion as a result.
The additions of Ben Matulino, Chris McQueen, Robbie Rochow and Russell Packer eases the blow of losing Aaron Woods and Ava Seumanufagai, while the emergence of Alex Twal and Matt Eisenhuth late last season should provide enough depth in the forward pack to match it with the more heavyweight outfits in 2018.
It's been dubbed the toughest start for a club in Telstra Premiership history, and the statistics don't lie.
Their opening five games are against top four sides – including defending premiers Melbourne Storm twice. However, this is where it gets easier for Ivan Cleary's men.
The side are unlikely to be hampered too much through the representative period in another big boost. They'll remain in and around Sydney over the Origin period while other clubs face the prospect of travel and playing depleted.
They've also avoided a trip to Queensland for the entire season, before finishing the year with two of their final three games at home. If they can jag a couple of wins early on with a new squad it will feel like gold and hold them in good stead for the remainder of the year.
"At the end of the day two points is two points whether it's round 20 or the first few games," Cleary told NRL.com.
"But if we do get a couple of wins in those opening few games it will be a great confidence builder."
The stat that gives you hope
When a side has undergone the amount of change they have in the past 12 months, it's easier to pinpoint the areas that need improving, rather than where they've done well.
For the Wests Tigers, the second-phase play the club was renowned for in the mid-2000s showed glimpses of a return on the back of their offloading ability in 2017.
The club finished third in the competition for metres gained following an effective offload at an average of 90.7 extra yardage made per game.
David Nofoaluma (56) and Esan Marsters (26) were key men in providing the late offload, while Luke Brooks and Tui Lolohea are among the best in staying alive to support their teammates.
"There's a lot of stats that we compile ourselves, which are equally relevant to the ones that everyone else gets," Cleary said.
"The last eight rounds of last year, I think defensively we were 7th in that period. To me that was a bit of a breakthrough because certainly in that area it hasn't necessarily been this club's strength."
What you need to know NRL Fantasy wise
Winger David Nofoaluma ($659,000) was a tackle-breaking, offloading machine last year and he may be required to be a more focal point of the Tigers' attack after the exit of James Tedesco. Tedesco's direct replacement Tuimoala Lolohea ($612,000) is another player with the potential to become a Fantasy gun after showing great form for Tonga at the 2017 World Cup, while Josh Reynolds ($493,000) could be an undervalued mid-range option and Taane Milne ($228,000) is looming as a popular cash cow in the centres.
He inherited a squad that was disgruntled but after more than nine signings and a series of exits, Cleary has found stability and wasted no time building a competitive team on paper for 2018.
It may not be complete, with question marks still lingering around the fullback spot, but there is enough cattle to fill the void short-term.
Contracted until the end of the 2020 season, Cleary's future is secure but the former Penrith Panthers coach faces pressure from a fan base that has endured the equal longest wait alongside the Warriors for their next finals appearance.
While the club will have their own goals for the season ahead, anything less than a top eight finish will not go down well with the faithful.
In news that Wests Tigers fans will welcome with both arms, the club has minimal players coming off-contract in 2018 with only eight first-graders without new deals – a complete contrast to last season.
There was no denying the futures of Luke Brooks, Aaron Woods, James Tedesco and Mitchell Moses took its toll on the club both on and off the paddock.
Priorities should include Sauaso Sue and rookie Esan Marsters, who turned heads late in the 2017 season bursting onto the scene. Versatile outside back Kevin Naiqama is also a free agent.
The burning question
How quickly can the side gel?
There is enough firepower across the paddock on paper but the players Cleary has bought can be riddled with inconsistency.
Players like Josh Reynolds, Luke Brooks, Tui Lolohea and David Nofoaluma are brilliant on their day, but have question marks lingering over them on other occasions.
You get the feeling they may come together and look unstoppable one week, but have the ability to fall apart the next.
He's had a taste of international football but don't be surprised to see young prop Alex Twal break into further representative honours after quietly impressing in 2017 – none more so than under the eye of NSW coach Brad Fittler during the World Cup campaign for Lebanon.
The 21-year-old's mid-season switch to the Wests Tigers paid dividends with Twal playing nine games and racking up consistent figures – 99.5 metres per game, 94 per cent tackle efficiency and 27 tackles on average.
Fittler is expected to throw a few curveballs with Origin selections in 2018 and the Parramatta junior may just be one of them.
The player you should follow on social media
If being jealous over holiday destinations is your thing, Kevin Naiqama is the man to provide. He mixes his love for travel and religion while sharing snapshots of training and games.
Josh Reynolds is another popular player on Instagram with more than 80,000 followers.
"Everyone's writing us off and that's sweet. People can say what they want to say. For us as a team, we'd be silly if we're not thinking about [finals]." Josh Reynolds
NRL.com expert Jamie Soward says: “The Tigers biggest strength is having a fresh start. Ivan Cleary a first full year as coach, they’ve got some new recruits coming in and all gelling well together. They need to get off to a fast start though.
“Wests Tigers finish 12th.”
Benji Marshall, Corey Thompson, David Nofoaluma, Esan Marsters, Josh Reynolds, Kevin Naiqama, Luke Brooks, Mahe Fonua, Malakai Watene-Zelezniak, Michael Chee-Kam, Pita Godinet, Taane Milne, Tuimoala Lolohea, Tyson Gamble. Alex Twal, Ben Matulino, Chris Lawrence, Chris McQueen, Elijah Taylor, Jacob Liddle, JJ Felise, Josh Aloiai, Matt Eisenhuth, Matt McIlwrick, Robbie Rochow, Russell Packer, Sauaso Sue, Tim Grant.
Note: These club squads are subject to change. Each club is required to submit 29 of their official 30-man playing squad to the NRL by March 1. The final spot in theses rosters can remain free up until June 30.