I’m expecting the fast-approaching 2020 season to be one of the closest we’ve ever seen.
The top teams all seem likely to regress. The Roosters have lost their halfback and superstar centre.
The Storm will have no genuine halfback and a new-look backline, while Cameron Smith is another year older.
Souths have a super backline but will need to find replacements for John Sutton and Burgess brothers George and Sam.
The recent history of both the Raiders and Eels means I’m not confident either club will repeat last year’s performances.
While I personally have big wraps on the remaining teams in the eight, they will need to improve on last year’s performances to feature late in September.
This article, however, is the first of eight that will focus on the bottom eight teams arguing why they will be stronger sides this year, and I’ll start with last year’s wooden spooners, the Gold Coast Titans.
There’s no denying the Titans were terrible last year and have a plethora of problems to fix. They lost captain and forward leader Ryan James to injury early and lost their $1 million halfback to mental health issues for much of the season. Other big-money signings failed to deliver and will need performances on par with their contract value for a Titans revival.
New coach Justin Holbrook will be tasked with getting the best out of these misfiring stars, but if he can do it, there’s enough talent for the Gold Coast to be competitive in 2020.
Their strength is in the forward pack. If these players play to their potential, they can match any pack in the competition. Shannon Boyd is a former Australian representative who failed to make an impact as a bench forward last year. The man-mountain has reportedly entered the preseason in peak fitness for the first time in his career and is keen to make amends this year. After spending the off-season boxing, Jarrod Wallace is another representative front-rower entering the preseason in excellent physical condition.
Add in (possibly departing) Origin lock Jai Arrow, young gun Mo Fotuaika and captain Ryan James, who may start games as an edge forward, and their middle rotation is sound.
Joining James as edge forward options include New Zealand rep Kevin Proctor and other big-money recruits who failed to deliver last year in Bryce Cartwright and Tyrone Peachey. Cartwright, the one-time wunderkind, seems destined to never live up to his potential, while Peachey seems undone by his own versatility. However, if these two former Panthers could rediscover their mojo, they’d both be genuine matchwinners who could invigorate the Titans attack.
Finally, the likes of Jai Whitbread, Leilani Latu and Keegan Hipgrave provide a bit of depth with players of genuine first-grade quality.
The spine boasts two quality hookers. Former Origin hooker Nathan Peats provides arguably the best defensive line speed in the NRL and will thus be leading his forwards in defence. The better-than-serviceable Mitch Rein will likely come off the bench to provide a bit of attacking spark. If Holbrook chooses to play just the one hooker, Peachey may at times fill in here off the bench also.
Young halfback Ash Taylor was considered the next great half as recently as two seasons ago by many in the game. This led to his million-dollar deal and expectations that last year he couldn’t fulfil. However, the ability is certainly there, and a happy Taylor will go a long way to making the Titans successful. Partnering Taylor will be his great mate Tyrone Roberts. Roberts has never been a standout player but is better than average, having led Titans, Knights and Werrington to finals appearances.
Finally, the exciting young fullback AJ Brimson will provide plenty of X factor in attack. What the diminutive fullback may lack in kick return strength he can make up for with his speed and ball-playing in the Titans backline. After spending the off-season working on his positional play with former fullback Michael Gordon, Brimson should be a much more consistent player in what will be his first full year at fullback.
Like many teams, the Titans will need their spine to remain free from injury given they have few experienced players to call upon. Exciting rookie Tanah Boyd, however, is a young half with a big future who may add to his two first-grade games this year.
Gold Coast’s real weakness is ultimately their backline. Their standout is centre Brian Kelly, who, despite the team having a lean year last year, still managed 123 metres a game, ten linebreaks, eight tries and five try assists for the year. These numbers are nearly as good as any centre in the game and will only improve as the team improves. English international Kallum Watkins will likely join him in the centres with the reliable Anthony Don and the speedy Phillip Sami.
This backline has the attributes to more than hold its own in attack. However, big improvements will need to be made defensively. Having now spent some time playing alongside each other, hopefully the combinations can improve and new coach Holbrook can add some resolve to their defence. Although, again, there is little depth to speak of, young Treymain Spry has plenty of potential, while Dale Copley provides an experienced option.
So there you have it. The Titans have enough talent and attacking spark to trouble any team. To truly compete next year they will need their halfback to return to form, while their representative-quality forwards need to stand up for the duration of the season.
Improved defence was the signature of new coach Holbrook during his time at St Helens and during his years as an assistant to Trent Robinson, and a bit of luck with injuries will go along way to lifting his side off the bottom of the table. If this was to coincide with the likes of Cartwright and Peachey returning to their best, they could even find themselves playing finals football.
Although they will be big improvers, there are just too many ifs and not enough depth for them to be playing finals football this year. However, I expect them to cause plenty of upsets throughout the season.
Where do you think the Titans can finish next season?