NRL 2018 OUTLOOK: TITANS

Will Evans’ series of 2018 NRL club previews appeared in the February/March issue of Rugby League Review magazine.

The Gold Coast Titans were the overachievers of 2016, ending a six-year finals drought with a largely unheralded squad. But the acquisition of megastar Jarryd Hayne was the centrepiece of a dramatic slide last year.

Injuries hit an already depth-shy Gold Coast squad hard, Hayne drastically underperformed and played a pivotal role in coach Neil Henry’s sacking, and the Titans finished 15th. Hayne then packed his bags to Parramatta with a year to run on his contract.

But things are looking remarkably bright on the holiday strip – predominantly due to the arrival of rookie coach Garth Brennan. The well-credentialed Brennan has earned a big reputation as a lower-grade coach and NRL assistant at Newcastle, while his enthusiasm and confidence have been the hallmarks of his public rhetoric so far.

Brennan’s influence has also dramatically altered the Titans’ roster for the better. His previously unknown role as Ashley Taylor’s mentor saw the gun halfback re-sign until the end of 2021, ex-Penrith prop Leilani Latu signed with the club in November, and gifted Panthers back-rower Bryce Cartwright made a dramatic switch to the Gold Coast in early-February. Another Penrith trump, Tyrone Peachey, looks certain to link up with the Titans in 2019.

Veteran fullback Michael Gordon, hooker Mitch Rein, front-rower Jack Stockwell and centre/winger Brenko Lee have also committed to the Titans since Brennan took the reins, adding to a previously thin list of recruits that includes outstanding Broncos back-row prospects Jai Arrow and Keegan Hipgrave, and utility-back Brendan Elliot.

The additions help alleviate the exit of first-choice stars Hayne, Chris McQueen, Agnatius Paasi, Leivaha Pulu, Tyrone Roberts and Dan Sarginson, along with a host of fringe players.

In Taylor and rep players Ryan James, Kevin Proctor, Jarrod Wallace, Konrad Hurrell and Nathan Peats, the Titans already had the bones of a handy line-up. Brennan’s expertise and the big-name buys may just see the wooden-spoon favourites surprise a few pundits and opponents in 2018.

BEST RECRUIT: In many ways Michael Gordon is the antithesis of Hayne, the player he will replace as Titans fullback: unassuming, ultra-professional, consistent and reliable. The 34-year-old Gordon may not boast Hayne’s game-breaking ability, but the Titans will thrive on the ex-NSW rep’s steady influence, experience and top-shelf goalkicking. And he’s a local product.

STRENGTH: Lack of expectations, a clean slate under an impressive new coach, and a handy quotient of blue-chip talent in their squad.

WEAKNESS: A lack of proven depth means the Titans can ill afford an injury crisis anything like last year’s if they hope to challenge for the top eight, while they appear to lack genuine firepower out wide.

KEY MAN: Ash Taylor signed a big-money extension with the Titans, and Brennan has made it clear the 22-year-old has to take ownership of the side. It’s a big ask for a halfback coming into his third season of NRL football – particularly as he is still building a combination with an equally inexperienced five-eighth in Kane Elgey – but Taylor’s ability is obvious, rivalling Nathan Cleary as the best young half in the game. A Queensland jumper isn’t out of the question in 2018.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Leilani Latu is a tremendous pick-up and should thrive under former Panthers assistant Brennan, who has indicated we are yet to anything close to the potential the 115kg giant possesses. A powerhouse who uses his size, Latu is also mobile and incredibly skilful for a big man, and should add a couple of extra dimensions to the Gold Coast pack.

YOUNG GUN: They only made 10 NRL appearances between them last season, but Brennan and the Titans have a massive wrap on 20-year-old flyers Tyronne Roberts-Davis and Phillip Sami. One or both of the youngsters developing into genuine first-grade material would be a huge boost for a Titans line-up short on backline strike.

UNDER PRESSURE: While his arrival is potentially an enormous coup for Gold Coast, few players will be under the microscope in 2018 more than Bryce Cartwright. A diabolical year off the paddock was compounded by injuries and poor form on it for the NSW Origin hopeful, though his man-of-the-match display in Penrith’s finals win over Manly provided a timely glimpse of his ability. A gifted ball-player, Cartwright needs to find his feet quickly – Brennan won’t be able to justify a starting spot for the 23-year-old if he’s not performing with so many quality forwards on the Titans’ books.

NEEDS TO IMPROVE: After having his 2016 campaign wiped out by an ACL injury, Kane Elgey made a tentative return last year and struggled to gel with linchpin Taylor. He was even benched during the latter stages of the season. Elgey will be given first crack at the No.6 jumper, but with promising youngster AJ Brimson knocking on the door of an NRL call-up and Cartwright also an option, he’ll want to find his rookie-year form fast.

THE COACH: For a newcomer to the NRL head coaching ranks, Garth Brennan could hardly have been more impressive to date. But ultimately he’ll be judged on how is team performs on the field, and the week-to-week grind of the premiership is certainly more taxing on a coach than the summer months. Nevertheless, Brennan should be given plenty of time to mould the new-look Titans into a competitive outfit.

LAST FIVE COACHES:
Terry Matterson/Craig Hodges (2017)
Neil Henry (2014-17)
John Cartwright (2007-14)

GAINS: Jai Arrow (Brisbane Broncos), Bryce Cartwright (Penrith Panthers), Brendan Elliot (Newcastle Knights), Michael Gordon (Sydney Roosters), Keegan Hipgrave (Brisbane Broncos), Leilani Latu (Penrith Panthers), Brenko Lee (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Mitch Rein (Penrith Panthers), Jack Stockwell (Newcastle Knights)

LOSSES: Tyler Cornish (released), Chris Grevsmuhl (released), Jarryd Hayne (Parramatta Eels), Chris McQueen (Wests Tigers), Ben Nakubuwai (Salford Red Devils), John Olive (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Agnatius Paasi (New Zealand Warriors), Nathaniel Peteru (Leeds Rhinos), Leivaha Pulu (New Zealand Warriors), Tyrone Roberts (Warrington Wolves), Dan Sarginson (Wigan Warriors), Paterika Vaivai (Leigh Centurions), Daniel Vidot (retired), William Zillman (retired)

TAB PREMIERSHIP ODDS: $51.00

PREDICTION: 13th

BEST LINE-UP IN 2018
1 Michael Gordon
2 Anthony Don
3 Brenko Lee
4 Konrad Hurrell
5 Dale Copley
6 Kane Elgey
7 Ashley Taylor
8 Jarrod Wallace
9 Nathan Peats
10 Leilani Latu
11 Kevin Proctor
12 Ryan James
13 Bryce Cartwright

14 Mitch Rein
15 Morgan Boyle
16 Joe Greenwood
17 Jai Arrow

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