5 Things to Watch for Today
There's certainly no shortage of storylines and things to keep an eye on as Wests Tigers take on the Sydney Roosters in Round 1 of the 2018 season this afternoon.
From the return of Benji Marshall in Wests Tigers colours to the arrival of superstar Cooper Cronk at Bondi, rugby league fans in general will have a keen eye on the action today as they try to figure out how these teams will perform in season 2018. Will the Roosters live up to their premiership favourites tag? Can Ivan Cleary's new-look side end Wests Tigers seven-year finals absence this season?
With so many storylines, we've picked our the five things you need to watch out for in today's game...
1. Which spine will click together first?
While much has been made of the changes at Wests Tigers in 2018, it's worth noting that their opponents today in the Roosters will actually head in to the match with more changes in the spine than they have — three new faces slotting in to the key positions for the visitors as opposed to just two for the home side.
Luke Keary's absence sees Mitchell Cornish partner Cooper Cronk in a new-look halves combination for the Roosters, while James Tedesco also makes his club debut. Captain Jake Friend is the only familiar face there from last season's loss to the Cowboys in the finals series for the Roosters, while on the other side, Josh Reynolds and Pita Godinet join Luke Brooks and Tuimoala Lolohea in the spine for Wests Tigers. And of all the new combinations that will play out this afternoon, how the two respective spines gel together will perhaps be most pertinent in finding out who wins this contest. There's no doubting the talent within the Roosters' key positions, but the omission of Keary might just swing things back in the favour of Wests Tigers and given the more established and experienced playmakers within the squad.
There's certainly plenty on the shoulders of Brooks and Lolohea as the familiar faces today for Wests Tigers, and after a tough last start loss to the Sharks, they will certainly be determined lift their performances and show Ivan Cleary they are ready to take control in 2018.
On a side note, keep an eye out for the role in which both benches play regarding the spine — Victor Radley will likely spell Friend at some point in the contest which will see plenty of inexperience on the field for the visitors whereas Benji Marshall's inclusion boosts the experience of Wests Tigers.
Speaking of which...
2. What will Benji Marshall bring in his first game back?
Having overcome a niggling calf injury to take his place in the Wests Tigers lineup for the first time in 1646 days, all eyes will be on what Benji Marshall can produce in his first game back for the club. The 33-year-old needs absolutely no introduction as to what he is capable of, but the bigger question will be as to what role he is applied in: will it be a direct swap for Pita Godinet at hooker or will he move in to the halves and partner Luke Brooks, pushing Josh Reynolds to the No.9 jersey or even the bench?
Coach Ivan Cleary wasn't giving anything away at yesterday's press conference in regards to his plan for the veteran Kiwi international — only to say that he had something up his sleeve for the game.
We'll have to wait with eager anticipation to see how that plays out.
3. Can Esan Marsters shut down Latrell Mitchell?
One of the most fascinating matchups today is around the two young gun centres Esan Marsters and Latrell Mitchell, who will come up against each other for just the third time in their young careers.
In just two seasons, Mitchell has quickly established himself as one of the hottest young prospects in the game, and with his name already being linked to the Origin arena, he'll be looking to get his year off to a flyer as he did in last fortnight's trial win over the Sea Eagles.
The man tasked with marking up with him, though, certainly knows what he's capable of given their time together as youngsters and is similarly turning heads early in to his career. Marsters' rookie season for Wests Tigers showed he was more than ready for the step up to NRL, and after beating out a number of more established centres to take his place in Round 1, he'll certainly cause plenty of problems on his own.
Historically, the Roosters' left edge has run riot over Wests Tigers' right-edge defence in recent years; can Marsters and new wing partner Corey Thompson stop that from happening today?
4. Which Kiwi forward will stand up most?
Any halfback will know when they're protected by the big men, they're a good chance of winning football games. And for Luke Brooks, that's exactly the feeling that he's having now with the arrival of Kiwi internationals Ben Matulino and Russell Packer, who will start together up front this afternoon.
"In the past, our forwards have only been young boys and we've only had the one or two experienced forwards," Brooks told The Daily Telegraph. "Now we've got about four or five in the pack and that is definitely going to help us on and off the field. It will really beef up our front row."
When the Warriors made their incredible Grand Final run under Ivan Cleary in 2011, it was off the back of the likes of Packer, Matulino and Elijah Taylor — all of whom will start for Wests Tigers today. And while the Kiwi international trio will certainly have confidence of stopping the Roosters' big men, fellow New Zealanders Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Sio Siua Taukeiaho haven't proven the easiest guys to stop.
It wouldn't be completely unthinkable to see all five players mentioned in the New Zealand squad in 2018, but the question today is: which one will stand up the most when his team needs it?
5. Will Tuimoala Lolohea take back over the goal-kicking duties?
One minor storyline to keep an eye on today too will be as to the goal-kicking duties for both teams. Sio Siua Taukeiaho likely has the nod for the Roosters over Latrell Mitchell in this department (although Mitchell could kick when Taukeiaho is off the field), but it's a far more intriguing battle at Wests Tigers.
In the club's first trial match, regular goal-kicker Tuimoala Lolohea had the first two attempts at goal, before young gun Esan Marsters and later Taane Milne took over. In the second trial match, with Lolohea playing reserve grade, Marsters and later Milne were the sole goal-kickers and it looked likely that Marsters would be kicking should he make the team in Round 1. However, with Lolohea earning his fullback spot back and Corey Thompson moving to the wing, will it be Lolohea or Marsters to kick?
A guess would have Lolohea perhaps in front of Marsters given his experience in the duty last year, but it could go either way. Certainly something to keep an eye on if a close contest arises this afternoon...