Wests Tigers Members and fans will be eager to see their team in action one more time before the season proper kicks off in early March with a final trial match against the Cronulla Sharks at Campbelltown Sports Stadium later tonight.
Off the back of a successful trip up north to Cairns last weekend to take on the North Queensland Cowboys in their first trial match, Ivan Cleary’s side know they will face a much tougher test this weekend against a Sharks outfit strengthened by the return of their World Cup stars.
With a number of Round 1 positions still up in the air, there’s no shortage of storylines to keep an eye on when the players take to the field around 7:00pm tonight…
1. Are the centres and wings locked in?
While much of the focus in the Wests Tigers team list this week will be around the fullback position (which we’ll get to later), the battle for the wing and centres positions continues to rage on. However, are we starting to get an answer of how the side will line up in Round 1 with the four players named this week? Malakai Watene-Zelezniak and Kevin Naiqama delivered a superb performance against the Cowboys in the club’s first trial match and have again been named on the left together, while young gun Esan Marsters has been named at centre to partner the stellar David Nofoaluma on the right. Marsters set up the first try and proved a handful all night for the Cowboys, and if his form in the back end of 2017 is anything to go by, then his combination with Nofoaluma is an attacking weapon waiting to be unlocked by Wests Tigers in 2018. Throw in his goal-kicking, and he might just have the edge at centre for now, so will it be that way come Round 1 or will the likes of Mahe Fonua and Taane Milne — who are chomping at the bit and named on the bench this evening — have something to say about it?
2. How will Ben Matulino and Russell Packer combine?
Not since 2013 will rugby league fans have seen Ben Matulino and Russell Packer line up on the same side of the field, but tonight’s trial will see the childhood friends reunited once more — this time in a new environment at Wests Tigers. Both experienced, mature and highly rated front row forwards, the former Warriors duo will create a new look front row partnership for Wests Tigers in 2018 and the biggest question will be as to whether they can push each other in a way that brings out the best in the other. Matulino was rated as arguably the world’s best forward only three years ago while Packer started for New Zealand in the recent World Cup, but fans will have memories of the heights the pair hit when playing together at the Warriors along with Elijah Taylor — a Grand Final appearance for the men across the Tasman under Coach Ivan Cleary. It’s rather haughty to start thinking of that now for Wests Tigers in February, but if they are going to create something together, it’ll start in tonight’s trial against the Sharks.
3. Can Corey Thompson make the fullback spot his own?
Ivan Cleary sprung a surprise on the rugby league cognoscenti when Corey Thompson was named at fullback and Tuimoala Lolohea not even included in the squad — named instead to feature in the reserve grade trial earlier this afternoon against Newtown. So the question looms: can the former Bulldog and Widnes Viking make the fullback spot his own now and seriously challenge Lolohea for the vacant number one jersey? Off the back of an excellent pre-season, Thompson featured heavily at fullback against the Cowboys and finished the match as arguably the player of the game — scoring two tries and keeping the home side at bay with good defensive positioning and reads. He’ll face a much sterner test this time around against a full-strength Sharks side, but with no obvious fullback listed amongst the reserves, Thompson may have close to the entire 80 minutes to prove his case to Cleary as to his selection in the club’s season opener.
4. Is Esan Marsters the new goal-kicker for Wests Tigers?
One key storyline to follow from Lolohea’s non-selection is around goal-kicking, with Esan Marsters potentially set to feature as the team’s primary goal-kicker tonight. Both he and Taane Milne took shots at goal last week and while Milne missed badly on his sole attempt from the sideline, Marsters looked more and more comfortable with the kicking tee as the night wore on. The likes of Josh Reynolds and Luke Brooks are all capable of taking a shot at goal in a trial match if needed, but heading in to Round 1, Ivan Cleary will no doubt want to see if his side can develop a genuine second goal-kicking option to Lolohea. For if the former Warrior does miss the season opening team or is unavailable, Wests Tigers will certainly need to have other options they can call on. Perhaps Marsters, who has trained extremely hard at his goal-kicking, could be it.
5. How will Chris McQueen fare in his return from injury?
Fans who turn up early to Campbelltown Sports Stadium today will be treated to the sight of England international Chris McQueen making his long-awaited return from a serious neck injury in the club’s Intrust Super Premiership match against Newtown at 4:45pm. Named to start in the second row there, it’s likely that McQueen will play the majority of the match before slotting in on the bench for a 20-25 minute spell in the first-grade match later tonight, and it’ll be great to see him on the field and back in action given how serious his surgery could have been. Going forward, his timely return could also provide another headache for Cleary in his Round 1 team selection; Robbie Rochow has been named to start in the second trial, but given McQueen’s talent and experience, he would surely come in to calculations somewhere in the squad to take on the Sydney Roosters providing he has enough fitness and form under his belt. Time will soon tell on that one!