Wests Tigers 2019 season preview

After a ninth-placed finish in 2018, the question continues to linger for the Wests Tigers – if not this year, then when?

After the Warriors were able to clinch a finals berth last season, that leaves Wests Tigers as the only club who haven't made the top eight since 2012.

Gone is Ivan Cleary, along with the bus clichés, as the club looks to move past a unique but difficult coaching period that left the joint venture searching for yet another new leader and off-field stability.

Michael Maguire's arrival will bring a different approach towards training and games, but if one club and its core players are used to a change of pace, it's the Tigers.

Despite two off-field incidents over the summer and the suspension of club CEO Justin Pascoe, the side looks relatively settled and boast their strongest squad in more than five seasons.

The futures of club favourites Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah could be decided by season's end. It shapes as no better motivation to possibly send both life members out on a successful note – starting with a finals finish.

The 2019 outlook

What's new

Along with Maguire, the club has added Sydney Roosters duo Ryan Matterson and Paul Momirovski to the squad, while Rabbitoh front-rower Zane Musgrove is also on board and looking to add to his 27 NRL games.

The key will be the fitness of key players like Josh Reynolds, who will almost feel like a new recruit for the club after managing just five games last season.

The draw

Wests Tigers will kick off the 2019 season in quieter circumstances to last year when they faced the Roosters, Broncos and the Storm twice in the opening five weeks.

Leichhardt Oval will host round one with the Tigers taking on arch-rivals Manly on March 16, before a further two home clashes in Campbelltown against the Warriors and Bulldogs.

All eyes will be on the side's round four clash against Penrith at Panthers Stadium with Ivan Cleary taking on the club he walked out on in October.

In good news for Tigers fans they only have to play the Warriors, Broncos, Storm, Dragons and Sharks once. All those sides finished in the top eight last season.

Their make-or-break period looms between round eight (v Roosters) through to round 16 where they'll meet the defending premiers again. In between they face Melbourne (away), Souths (home and away), Penrith (home), Canberra (home) and North Queensland (away).

The stat that gives you hope

The Wests Tigers were one of the best defensive teams in the Telstra Premiership last season – for the opening 50 minutes of their clashes at least. They only conceded 30 tries all year during that period of the game.

They struggled in the final 30 minutes though, conceding 45 tries, indicating fatigue became a factor, even though they were ranked as the best scrambling side.

Maguire's gruelling pre-season should hold the Tigers in better stead fitness-wise if they continue with their defensive efforts during the latter stages of the contest.

The arrival of the premiership-winning coach should also bring more points – Souths averaged 522 points per season during his six-year stint at Redfern.

Scoring points for the joint venture hasn't proved easy in recent times despite a ninth-place finish in 2018 – the side averaging just 15.7 per game.

Fans should be encouraged by Maguire's average of 21.8 points per game at Souths.

What you need to know NRL Fantasy-wise

Esan Marsters ($617,000) and Luke Brooks ($592,000) are coming off career-best years, while Alex Twal averages better than a point a minute in Fantasy so if he gets close to 50 minutes under new coach Michael Maguire he's on track to become a great buy. Ryan Matterson ($681,000) is a quality signing and is capable of scoring in the mid-50s in Fantasy if given an 80-minute role in the pack.

The coach

A refreshed Maguire returns to the NRL following a one-year. Only time will tell what influence the former Rabbitohs mentor will have on his new troops but many judges predict an improved season with a settled squad.

The club has signed Maguire to a three-year deal and while he's naturally under pressure to deliver success, he'll be given time to work closely with playmakers Brooks and Marshall and Farah to unlock the side's attacking potential and also give them a harder edge.

With a 56% win rate across six seasons at Redfern, the club has got a coach that can take the side to the next level required.

"It's given me a fresh mind to jump back in and I'm really looking forward to going back to coaching again and being around the players, to be around the boys and form a team that can build something special," Maguire said.

Contract matters

Three of the club's longest serving players Marshall, Farah and Lawrence will all have decisions to make around their NRL futures with the trio headlining at least a dozen players off-contract in 2019.

The club locked in Luke Brooks before Christmas in a boost for the club, while Jacob Liddle, Mahe Fonua and Josh Aloiai are other names that could come under the radar of rival clubs.

It shapes as a huge year for 22-year-old Liddle, who is off contract at the end of 2019. A big year could see him lock up the No.9 long term, especially if Farah retires at season's end as expected.

The burning question

Can the Wests Tigers respond to Maguire's coaching ways early and break their finals drought?

After five different coaches and plenty of upheaval, the patience of their loyal fans would have to be wearing thin.

No players are aware of the drought more than those who were part of the last Tigers side to taste September action (Farah, Marshall and Lawrence) and those who have been brought through the junior system over the past five years, like 100-game players Brooks and David Nofoaluma.

Wests Tigers halfback Luke Brooks.
Wests Tigers halfback Luke Brooks. ©Nathan Hopkins/NRL Photos

Representative bolter

Few could argue with the form of Luke Brooks in 2018 after he almost single-handedly carried the side with an ever-changing spine at his disposal.

Expectation has been on the 24-year-old since he made his NRL debut in 2013.

He produced easily his best season last year with five tries, 10 try assists, 21 forced drop outs, 19 offloads and an average 83.3 running metres per game to be crowned Dally M halfback of the year.

The NSW side looks to have settled on Nathan Cleary for the long term but in case of any injuries, Brooks could be knocking on the door if his form flows into the new season.

The player you should follow on social media

What better way to welcome a new player to the club than by giving them a follow on Instagram. Ryan Matterson's arrival to Concord will bring a handy 16.3k followers with him. A frequent poster on the platform, the 24-year-old delivered fans behind-the-scenes moments during his time at the Roosters and will no doubt do the same in his new colours.

 
 
 
 
 
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Feels good to get the ball in the hands again👌🏻 #OurJungle On a side note... how goods the gear this year ✌🏻 @iscsport @nrl_weststigers

A post shared by Ryan Matterson (@ryan_matto) on

The quote

"I'm a big believer that the current squad is very capable of doing some big things if we choose to," Maguire said.

"If they all come together in the right way there's no reason they can't have short-term and long-term success."

Arrows indicate players who signed after the submission of initial rosters on November 1, 2018.