Will Evans’ series of 2017 NRL club previews appeared in the summer special of Rugby League Review magazine.
After their best season in five years – finishing ninth after coming second-last in 2015 – it’s still difficult to ascertain whether Wests Tigers finished on the positive side of the ledger at the end of 2016.
In another tumultuous year for the joint venture, the Tigers lost six of their first eight, before winning eight of their next 12 to storm into finals contention. Just one win in the last month of the regular season – including a 52-10 loss to Canberra in the final round when they were playing for eighth spot – finished the campaign on a disappointing note, but there were some major improvements.
Mitchell Moses is developing into the gun five-eighth everyone knew he could be, while James Tedesco became regarded as arguably the best fullback in the game despite a few injuries, and Aaron Woods flourished with the captaincy responsibilities. Chris Lawrence, David Nofoaluma, Josh Aloiai, Dene Halatau and Elijah Taylor were shining surprise packets.
But coach Jason Taylor’s long-running bid to oust Tigers legend Robbie Farah from the club alienated many supporters, and the departure of fellow dummy-halves Halatau and Manaia Cherrington has left a big hole.
The club has also lost Josh Addo-Carr, Curtis Sironen and Jack Buchanan, while picking up utility Matt McIlwrick and making one of the biggest recruitment gambles of the off-season by throwing wayward star Jamal Idris a lifeline.
If the Tigers keep their best team on the park, and Tedesco, Moses, Woods, Idris and Luke Brooks fire, they’re a definite finals contender – but that’s probably true of every club bar the Knights and Dragons.
The jury remains out on Jason Taylor’s vision for the Tigers, but their success or failure will be fascinating viewing either way.
BEST RECRUIT: He’s a big roll of the dice, but if giant centre Jamal Idris can get back to his destructive best after almost two years out of the game, he will transform the Tigers’ backline.
— NRL Feeds (@nrlfeeds) December 16, 2016
STRENGTH: Sizzling young attacking stars, improving defence, one of the game’s best front-rowers and the belated end to the Robbie Farah saga.
WEAKNESS: Questions marks over their halfback (and to a lesser extent their five-eighth) to develop into the marquee player they need him to be, while forward depth and the hooker spot again shapes as a problem.
KEY MAN: A healthy James Tedesco is paramount to any potential Tigers finals charge. He was the outstanding fullback of 2016 in most pundits’ eyes, scoring 14 tries in 17 games – but those seven games he missed proved crucial. The incumbent NSW fullback has developed into the complete No.1.
— NRL (@NRL) December 18, 2016
PLAYER TO WATCH: Winger David Nofoaluma was an absolute machine during a career-best 2016. With Josh Mansour’s injury putting his NSW Origin spot in jeopardy, Nofoaluma would be the ideal like-for-like replacement on the Blues’ flank.
— Wests Tigers (@WestsTigers) December 15, 2016
YOUNG GUN: Josh Aloiai slipped under the rookie radar somewhat, but he played all 24 games for the Tigers – including 15 backrow starts. For a team that lacks class in the forwards, the Auckland-born tyro’s emergence was a godsend.
UNDER PRESSURE: Idris’ arrival has put incumbent centres Tim Simona and Kevin Naiqama on notice. Both enjoyed eye-catching 2016 campaigns, but Idris hasn’t been recruited to play reserve grade and one of the internationals are likely to make way or shuffle out to the wing.
NEEDS TO IMPROVE: Mitchell Moses silenced plenty of critics with an improved season, but Luke Brooks stagnated. With three full NRL campaigns behind him, it’s time for the 22-year-old to confirm he is a top-shelf No.7.
THE COACH: The gruelling feud with Farah is over, with coach Jason Taylor emerging victorious. His team showed tremendous improvement during the second half of 2016, but another finish outside the top eight will put the acid on Taylor.
THE DRAW: The Tigers’ draw is rated the 11th-hardest in the NRL based on last season’s standings, playing only the Panthers, Cowboys, Sharks and Titans twice of the 2016 finalists. But the big plus is their lack of travel – the Tigers play all three Queensland clubs away, but their only other non-Sydney games are short trips to Canberra and Newcastle.
LAST FIVE COACHES:
Jason Taylor (2015-current)
Michael Potter (2013-14)
Tim Sheens (2003-12)
Terry Lamb (2001-02)
Wayne Pearce (2000)
BEST LINE-UP IN 2017
1 James Tedesco
2 David Nofoaluma
3 Tim Simona
4 Jamal Idris
5 Kevin Naiqama
6 Mitchell Moses
7 Luke Brooks
8 Aaron Woods
9 Matt Ballin
10 Sauaso Sue
11 Josh Aloiai
12 Chris Lawrence
13 Elijah Taylor
14 Matt McIlwrick
15 Ava Seumanufagai
16 Tim Grant
17 Joel Edwards
No holding back in the final session!
— Wests Tigers (@WestsTigers) December 20, 2016