The #NRL teams are in for Round 17.
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After travelling to within one match of the decider last season, the Gold Coast enter 2011 on the back of their most successful campaign. However, their unsavoury preliminary final loss at the hands of the high flying Sydney Roosters no doubt left a sense of unfinished business. The Titans will now have to push themselves to even greater heights to make an elusive grand final. But the question remains; does their squad - the oldest in the NRL - have enough improvement in them?
With the likes of Scott Prince, Anthony Laffranchi, Luke Bailey, Preston Campbell, Nathan Friend, Clinton Toopi and Brad Meyers all currently 30 or above, Gold Coast's 'Dad's Army' was placed under the microscope following their disappointing 2010 exit. By no means should they consider a cross-sport leap to the latest lawn bowls franchise but in the era of the under 20s, they will again face younger teams with fresher legs.
However, what could be percieved as a weakness is also the Titans greatest asset. With experience comes consistency - the club's strength. At no stage in 2010 did they slip out of the top eight and their record in close games was superb. The club won three matches by a solitary point and five others by six points or less. Much of their ability to outlast the opposition can be attributed to one of the fittest group of forwards in the league.
Lead by workhorse veterans Luke Bailey and Anthony Laffranchi, each member of the Titans' starting pack has the capacity to produce an eighty minute performance. None more so than Energiser Bunny hooker Nathan Friend, whose eagerness for defence at any point on the field is probably unrivalled. In the backrow, Queensland star Ashley Harrison shows similar levels of endurance, while Mark Minichiello and Greg Bird provide the aggression and intimidation factor. The Titans boast one of the top forward packs in the NRL and they will again provide a great platform in 2011.
That platform will lay the foundation for - yep you guessed it - one of the top playmakers in the league. The crafty Scott Prince is the kingpin for the Titans and controls where, where and how they attack. However, the retirement of dual international Mat Rogers means the five-eighth spot outside Prince is wide open. Preston Campbell would be the safe option, although he may be shifted to an impact role on the bench to accommodate South Sydney buy Luke Capewell. Capewell's trial form in the halves has reportedly been encouraging and he could well be the X-Factor for the Titans.
Five-eighth isn't the only selection issue for John Cartwright, who also faces a dilemma in the centres. After injury disrupted their 2011 campaign, Joseph Tomane and Esi Tonga will be back in contention but the surprise late-season form of Toopi and Steve Michaels in 2010 will make them difficult to overlook. Tomane's powerhouse style should see him form an imposing combination with the pace of either Kevin Gordon or David Mead.
On paper, across the park, the Gold Coast have an ominous lineup. And, with the impressive Cartwright steering the ship, the Titans' consistency should ensure a top eight berth. Their biggest test will be avoiding the finish of 2010 and finding an extra gear when it counts at semi-final time.
Player to Watch - William Zillman
William Zillman is often described by team mates and coaching staff as a 'complete package' and one of the most talented and freakish players in the NRL. However, despite the glowing reviews, the rugby league world is yet to see Zillman fully hit his straps in first grade. The 24-year old was shifted between fullback, wing and the bench last year but looks set to make the number one jersey his own. Zillman's blinding acceleration and speed gives the team lethal pace across the back three, which can become even more dangerous if he strikes a combination running off Prince. Since his debut five seasons ago for Canberra, lofty expectations have surrounded Zillman but Gold Coast fans will be hoping 2011 is the year he truly makes his mark.
Rookie to Watch - Ben Ridge
In a largely settled top seventeen, only two rookies debuted for the Gold Coast last season. The first, herculean forward Ryan James, caught the attention of most pundits for his wrecking-ball style hit ups. While the second, second rower Ben Ridge, chalked up the same number of appearances (four matches off the interchange) with a great deal less fanfare. However, although he didn't attract any headlines, Ridge showed enough promise to suggest he was a youngster on the rise. Built in the mould of fellow backrower Ashley Harrison, Ridge combines solid defence with an ability to find space on the fringe of the ruck. The Titans backrow has been largely unchanged for a few seasons, but with inevitable injuries and State of Origin duties, Ridge will no doubt get further chances in the NRL this year.
Signings: Luke Capewell (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Joe Vickery (St George Illawarra Dragons), Richie Williams (Burleigh Bears), Sam Martin (Melbourne Storm)
Losses: Mat Rogers (Retirement), Jordan Atkins (Parramatta Eels), Ryan Tongia (Cronulla Sharks), Aaron Cannings, Josh Graham, Selasi Berdie, Marshall Chalk (Released)
Predicted best lineup
1. William Zillman 2. Kevin Gordon 3. Joseph Tomane 4. Clinton Toopi 5. David Mead 6. Luke Capewell 7. Scott Prince 8. Luke Bailey 9. Nathan Friend 10. Anthony Laffranchi 11. Greg Bird 12. Mark Minichiello 13. Ashley Harrison
Interchange: 14. Preston Campbell 15. Michael Henderson 16. Brad Meyers 17. Bodene Thompson