2017 NRL Season Preview Wests Tigers
2016 Review - After three straight seasons in the Bottom 4, the Wests Tigers achieved a year of progress, if not success, last year finishing in 9th position. After finishing 2nd last with just 8 wins in 2015 in Jason Taylor's first season in charge, the Tigers improved to 11 wins last season and had a shot to make the Top 8 in the final game at Leichhardt Oval, only to suffer a blow-out 50-12 loss to the Canberra Raiders. The big positive for Tigers’ fans was the breakout season for boom young five-eight Mitchell Moses. Moses took his game to another level in 2016, looking far more comfortable and confident calling the shot, orchestrating a number of the Tigers’ victories. Coupled with the continuing outstanding form of James Tedesco, and the mid-season signing of Elijah Taylor, the Tigers made a late season surge to give their fans optimism heading into 2017.
The biggest negative for Tigers’ fans was, once again, the team’s defence which ranked second last in the whole NRL, conceding over 600 points and 105 tries in total. Jason Taylor's Number 1 mantra coming into the club was to improve the side’s defence. However it took a step back last year as the Tigers missed the 4th most tackles in the NRL and struggled on the edges, particularly the targeting of their young halves in defence. The highlight of the year for the Tigers was probably their 26-14 victory over the reigning premiers, the Cowboys, at Leichhardt Oval, where the team played with a physicality and aggression often lacking. Undoubtedly the lowlights, for mine, were the two 50-point hidings the Tigers suffered against the Raiders, as well as gifting the Knights their only victory of the season in a what proved costly 18-16 loss in Newcastle.
2017 Gains - The Tigers were particularly quiet in the transfer market, once again, with Jamal Idris (free agent) and Matt McIlwrick (Sharks) being their only off-season signings. Idris, undoubtedly, was the big attraction, having spent 12 months out of Rugby League to travel around the world. Idris had fallen out of love with the game and been well below his best in stints with the Titans and Panthers over the past few seasons. However, having dropped 11kg in the preseason and looking fresh and focused mentally, Idris could yet prove a valuable signing for the Tigers, especially given their struggles at centre and 2nd row. With Tim Simona looking set for an extended holiday, if Idris can get back to somewhere near his best, it would certainly give the Tigers a bit more size and presence in the outside backs. I have doubts whether Idris can match it with some of the explosive athletes out in the centres, however I think for the Tigers it was worth a shot as, near his best, he can definitely add something to the team in a position where they have struggled in the past.
Matt Mcllwrick (Sharks) has been a bit of a journeyman having played a few First Grade games for the Roosters, Raiders and Sharks over the past four seasons. With constant doubts over the fitness of veteran Matt Ballin and with boom youngster Jacob Liddle suffering an injury in the pre-season, Mcllwrick may well get first crack at the Number 9 jersey vacated by long term Tigers legends Robbie Farah and Dene Halatau.
2017 Losses - The Tigers have lost a fair bit of depth over the off-season, moving on some guys that were obviously not in Jason Taylor's plans, whilst also clearing Salary Cap space to retain their big 4 of Tedesco, Moses, Brooks and Woods. The main departure from Concord after 14 years was that of Robbie Farah who had a toxic relationship with Jason Taylor over the past two seasons. Whilst Farah remains a very experienced and quality Number 9, it was time for a fresh start for him as he had become stale and unhappy at the Tigers. I was perplexed the Tigers let Josh Addo-Carr (Storm) slip through their fingers as I thought the winger had plenty of raw ability. Something you can’t coach is speed and Addo-Carr would have to be close to the fastest player in the NRL and can sniff out a try from nowhere.
Curtis Sironen (Manly) never quite lived up to the hype in Tigers’ colours, whilst well respected veteran Dene Halatau decided to hang up the boots. Other losses over the off season included Jack Buchanan (Widnes), Josh Drinkwater (released), Asipeli Fine (Bulldogs), Lamar Liolevave (Bulldogs), Billy McConnachie (released), Jesse Parahi (Rugby Sevens), Manaia Cherrington (Sharks), , Chance Peni (rugby union) and Rod Griffin (Bulldogs).
2017 Player To Watch - Luke Brooks and Jacob Liddle - I think it is a really big year for Luke Brooks after what I thought was a disappointing year for the halfback in 2016. Brooks seemed to have the world at his feet after his rookie game in 2013 and a great season in 2014, however has failed to take his game up to another level in the past two seasons. He was compared to Andrew Johns very early in his career, however he has not been able to dominate games and has instead had an inconsistent passing and kicking game. I think his running game remains his strong point, whereas his defence is often not up to First Grade standard on the goal line. With the likes of Tedesco, Moses and Woods demanding top dollars at the Tigers, Brooks could be the man that gets squeezed out if he does not step up and have a huge start to the season. The other player to watch for me is young Jacob Liddle, the long term replacement for Robbie Farah, who made just one First Grade appearance last season against the Bulldogs. Little is a huge prospect, having watched him play in the Holden Cup and State Cup, with his slick passing game, dangerous running game and great football instincts. I think he is a potential rep player and, whilst he may struggle with his slight build early in the season, I think he is a player of Representative potential.
2017 Draw (Middle of the Road) - The Tigers face a real baptism of fire in the first month, coming up against the likes of the Panthers, Raiders and Storm. This could be a real nightmare for Jason Taylor who needs early wins to secure his job, being off contract this season. On the positive side, the Tigers have the most Sunday afternoon games of any Club with 7, which should help a side that likes to play free flowing football. They also have no five-day turn arounds, and 3 nine-day turn arounds, which should give them an edge over other Clubs.
2017 Forecast - 10th (11 wins)
I really wanted to have the guts to pick this side higher up, however there were a few things that made me perhaps wise up and have them just outside the Top 8. I have watched them in the pre-season and I'm really worried about the Tigers’ depth. I think their best 17 is capable of making the Top 8 this season, but an injury to Tedesco, Moses or Woods could see them fall off the cliff and challenge Newcastle for the spoon. I think far too much is going to be reliant on those three players and, with Tedesco and Woods locks for Origin, they are going to miss some football which will hurt the Tigers. While I think Idris can add something to them, the Tigers have lost a lot of what one would call "decent" First Graders. If you add it all up, the likes of Simona, Sironen, Addo-Carr, Farah, Halatau and Sherrington, that’s a fair amount of First Grade experience and depth lost to the Club.
I also have doubts over Jason Taylor as a First Grade Head Coach. He has an average record and I am not sure commands the respect at Concord of all the players, despite having made some improvements in the team’s performance on and off the field. What I am excited about is the potential combination of the spine with the addition of young hooker Jacob Liddle. I think this spine has the ability to become the Number 1 spine in the game over the next 2-3 seasons if they all stick together. Elijah Taylor is also an extremely underrated player and I expect him, after an off season under his belt working on combinations, to really add further flair to an already dangerous and exciting Tigers’ attack. Overall, I think this side will thrill at times this year and they are capable of making the finals if they have a good run with injuries. However, I have them just outside the finals with 10-11 wins as I don't think they addressed their concerns in the summer being depth, the lack of a goal kicker and a lack of power in the back row.