The battle for spots will be at an all-time high at Wests Tigers in 2018, with Coach Ivan Cleary putting together an extremely strong squad for the season ahead.
With 10 brand new faces “on the bus” for the year ahead and a great mixture of youthful talent and experience in the midst, the team that takes to the field in Round 1 against the Sydney Roosters will be vastly different from the one that ended 2017 against the New Zealand Warriors!
In the “Contenders” series, we looked at which players would battle it out for which spots in 2018, with the series provoking plenty of debate and speculation amongst Members and fans!
How would your your team for Round 1 shape up?
Tuimoala Lolohea is seemingly the front-runner for the position as he transitions from the halves, while Kevin Naiqama also presents an interesting option following his time at the back for Fiji in the World Cup. Corey Thompson also has experience playing fullback for Widnes in Super League, while David Nofoaluma enters as a bit more of a left-field selection having spent time at fullback earlier in his career.
Nofoaluma likely has the right wing spot locked down after a superb 2017 season, but the other wing position is certainly up for grabs with plenty of contenders. Naiqama, Moses Suli and Malakai Watene-Zelezniak all spent time on the left wing for Wests Tigers last year and will fancy their chances at nabbing the Round 1 spot, while the arrivals of Mahe Fonua, Corey Thompson and Taane Milne all present interesting options for Coach Ivan Cleary to consider in one of the deepest positions in the squad.
Another extremely tough position to predict heading in to 2018, Fonua and Milne will be right in the running for a centre spot this year after strong ends to the year at Hull FC and Fiji respectively, while Naiqama could also feature in the three-quarter position given his experience there. Last year, it was Esan Marsters and Michael Chee Kam who featured heavily in the centres for Wests Tigers following the season-ending injury to Suli, and all three will also be in the running for a centre spot this season.
Josh Reynolds' high-profile move in the off-season makes him the front-runner here, but the arrival of Life Member Benji Marshall means that the pressure is certainly on both halves to perform from the get go. Should he miss out on the fullback spot, Lolohea would be in the running for a halves position too given his recent experience there towards the back end of 2017 for Wests Tigers, while the only uncapped player in the squad, Tyson Gamble, will continue to push his claims for a debut and offer extra depth in 2018. Like Gamble, Pita Godinet's experience adds to the halves depth and offers another option if needed.
Set to reach 100 games in 2018, Luke Brooks will likely be the halfback in Round 1 (barring unforeseen circumstances), but there's certainly pressure on the talented local junior to perform with Marshall, Gamble and Godinet all nipping at his heels and more than capable of doing a job throughout the year.
Kiwi Test forwards Ben Matulino and Russell Packer will be hard to keep out of the starting spots in 2018, but there's certainly plenty of talent around them to contend for a bench spot and even push the former teammates for a starting gig. Alex Twal was one of the players of the World Cup for Lebanon, while Tim Grant finished 2017 as the club's starting forward and offers plenty of experience as a former State of Origin representative. Sauaso Sue also climbed past 100 games last year and will fancy his chances at getting game time in the middle of the field (although he may be used more on an edge), while young gun JJ Felise will only be better this season after adding to his experience on and off the field in 2017.
The experience of Chris Lawrence (208 games), Elijah Taylor (142 games), Chris McQueen (151 games), Robbie Rochow (83 games) and Sue (100 games) will add plenty to the back row depth at Wests Tigers in 2018, and all will be in the running to feature against the Roosters in Round 1. Contrasted to that is the depth of young talent available in the position, with Matt Eisenhuth, Josh Aloiai, Chee Kam and Marsters all capable of slotting in on an edge and making an impact for Coach Ivan Cleary in the year ahead.
As with the back row, the contrast of experience and young talent makes for a fascinating battle for the number 13 jersey in 2018, with most players above in the running. Of those, you'd have to think that Taylor, Sue, Eisenhuth, Aloiai and Rochow are the main contenders, as well as young gun Twal.
Jacob Liddle and Matt McIlwrick split time in the position last year under Cleary, and that will likely occur again in 2018 as they look to grow off each other. The situation is perhaps complicated a little by the arrival of Marshall, however, who did a great job off the bench at hooker for Brisbane last year and could play a similar role if required this year — meaning that one of those two could miss out. As he does with the fullback and halves, Godinet also provides plenty of depth and cover at hooker too if needed.