Wests Tigers Members and fans will have their first chance to see Ivan Cleary’s new-look 2018 side in action when they take to the field for tonight's (Saturday) first trial match against the North Queensland Cowboys at Barlow Park in Cairns.
Four months on from the moment pre-season training began at Concord Oval, it’s been a radical transformation for Wests Tigers as they enter their first full year under Cleary, with new training staff and playing roster sure to change the on-field style as well.
What that will look like still remains to be seen, with several intriguing storylines set to run their course over the next few weeks leading in to the season opener on March 10.
Tonight’s trial will provide the chance to see those storylines start to work themselves out; we’ve picked out five that will be pertinent for Wests Tigers fans ahead of Round 1...
1. How will the new spine function?
Called the spine for a reason, the combination of Luke Brooks, Josh Reynolds and Tui Lolohea will be of utmost importance to Wests Tigers’ finals hopes in 2018 and tonight’s trial will see that combination take to the field for the first time. Brooks and Lolohea looked extremely comfortable in the halves together over the back half of 2017 and Lolohea’s World Cup campaign with Tonga was up there with the best individual efforts of the tournament, but that relationship now takes on a different dynamic with Lolohea out the back and Reynolds in the halves. A two-time international, Lolohea holds no fear of playing at fullback given his experience in the position, and will likely enjoy the opportunity to have the ball in space in 2018 without the added pressure that comes in the halves. Lolohea has himself mentioned how much training in one position for the entire pre-season has helped him, so it’ll be exciting for all Wests Tigers fans to see him in full flight this evening. And for Reynolds, it’s known what he’ll bring on the field — energy, passion, high-class talent and a relentless desire to win — but what affect he’ll have on Brooks and the side overall still remains to be seen. The former State of Origin five-eighth has enjoyed a superb pre-season and staked his claim as one of the fittest players in the side, and he’ll certainly be keen to produce in his new colours from the opening whistle on Saturday night.
2. Who takes a leading role in the back row for Wests Tigers?
While much of the focus for Wests Tigers fans in 2018 will be on a new-look front row partnership of Ben Matulino and Russell Packer, interest will still certainly be high to see who slots in to the two back row positions this year. A Life Member and the club’s all-time equal top-try scorer, you’d think that Chris Lawrence certainly has first crack at the left edge spot and will lead tirelessly from the front as he does every week, but outside of him, it’ll be fascinating to see what role others are used in. Elijah Taylor played second row in the back end of the year but could just as easily see more time at lock, Esan Marsters and Michael Chee Kam might split time with the centres, and the likes of Robbie Rochow and Chris McQueen haven’t even pulled on the Wests Tigers colours yet. Throw in Josh Aloiai, and Matt Eisenhuth and it’s certainly a strong back row rotation and a very competitive spot for Round 1 — who will stand up in the trials?
3. Which player/s stand out in the centres and wings?
Just as competitive as the back row is the outside backs, with several positions still genuinely up for grabs. Tuimoala Lolohea is seemingly the frontrunner at fullback and David Nofoaluma will most likely feature on the right wing, but aside from those, there’s arguments to be made for a slew of players potentially featuring in Round 1. The likes of Malakai Watene-Zelezniak, Kevin Naiqama, Corey Thompson, Taane Milne and Mahe Fonua, as well as Chee Kam and Marsters, will likely split time in the centres and wing as Cleary looks to give each player a chance to stake their claims, and that makes for three very interesting positional battles. Tim Grant has put his hand up for Watene-Zelezniak and the remarkable preseason he has had in his second season at Wests Tigers, but he, along with all the others, will know that a strong trial performance will mean a lot more.
4. How much ball movement do we see from Wests Tigers?
It’s perhaps somewhat of a secondary storyline to the positional battles that will dominate many people’s Twitter feeds on Saturday night, but one worth following the same — will we see a “back to the future” attack from Wests Tigers and a commitment to throw the ball around? Several players have mentioned throughout the pre-seasonthat fans should be prepared to see a more attacking flair from Wests Tigers, but given the hot and humid conditions in Cairns combined with the likely rust that comes in the first trials, we might see that attacking potency tempered early on. Although, given the attacking talent that exists in the side, it’ll surely still come out from time to time...
5. Who kicks goals?
It’s a good question, even if we do say so ourselves. Lolohea finished the year as the team’s leading goal-kicker and showed great promise in the back few weeks in that department, but there are a few sneaky other options in the team that could come to the fore. Wests Tigers Assistant Coach and star goal-kicker in his day Brett Hodgson has been working closely with a number of players and we’ll be keeping an eager eye out to see who trots back with the kicking tee when Wests Tigers cross the line on Saturday night. We’re not giving anything away, but just make sure you don’t sleep on this storyline…