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2014 Gold Coast Titans Season Preview
Being a Titans fan is very much akin to the childish rhyme “here I sit broken-hearted, paid a penny but only farted”. Over recent seasons the sun-bronzed faithful have swapped their banana chairs and surfboards for the brooding stands of Robina Stadium; full of hope and expectation only to be faced with a gut-wrenching, deflating early season exit. What can they expect in 2014?
Three years ago at this time, the club was full of expectation after nearly going “all the way” in 2010 yet incredibly won the dreaded wooden spoon. Two years ago, on the back of a buying spree and the injection of marketing guru David May as CEO hopes soared, only for the team to flop around at 11th. Last year, inaugural skipper Scott Prince did a runner and by May CEO May was history too as the club stumbled to a disappointing 9th.
2014 has started with a whimper rather than a bang. No matter what spin the club puts on it, the exit of Jamal Idris to Penrith and the arrival of Panthers lightweight Brad Tighe was not a fair swap but that won't cost the club its first premiership. The issues within the Titans revolve more around coaching and club finances than the make-up of the team.
Already the social media wires are burning hot with the rumour that off-season recruit, Cowboys reject coach Neil Henry, is likely to be elevated from his current assistants role to replace the increasingly sour John Cartwright. Many will argue that a change of clipboard is overdue considering the resources provided and the very mediocre team performances.
Furthermore, ex-NRL luminary and ex-NSW politician Graham Annersley has joined the white-shoe brigade on the Coast as CEO.
Compounding management intrigue is the phenomenon that sightings of majority owner and director of football Michael Searle have become more rare than a six foot swell at the Isle of Capri. However, in the continued absence of the often-promised Board of Management there is little doubt that Searle is still twiddling the club's strings when he is not diddling in the Caymans.
The club does have a lot more stable look about its stable this year but that is more about mediocrity rather than any emerging dynasty. Unless the revamped coaching group can conjure-up a new game plan, the Gold Coast will reverberate to the sound of mass yawning from emptying stands as the team rolls through more mind-numbing sets of five hit-ups leading to a Hail Mary kick.
There is light in the tunnel but it’s a flicker only at this stage. The precocious talent of halfback Albert Kelly blended with scheming pivot Aiden Sezer was a highlight of the season past. These two hold the key, along with some added depth provided by South Sydney U20 signing Christian Hazard and the return of journeyman Beau Henry from injury. The Titans finally have options in those key positions.
The outside backs do look less brittle with centre Brad Takairangi being joined by Storm’s Maurice Blair and the Panthers Tighe whilst boom wingman Kalifa Faifailoa has wandered down from North Queensland and Siuatonga Likiliki was signed from the Knights.
Where they can win it
Every rugby league aficionado is familiar with the cliché "forwards win rugby league matches" and the Titans are well-endowed in that area. With a more focused Dave Taylor and that hair-guy, tyro Ryan James providing much-needed grunt, established masters Greg Bird and Nate Myles will have options to compliment ageing bruisers Luke Bailey and Luke Douglas. With crowd favourites Matt White and Ash Harrison also returning from injury plus forgotten hitman Ben Ridge and evergreen Mark "Hands" Minichiello, the Coast looks capable of mixing it with the best.
Last year’s surprise package Beau Falloon has stolen the pole position as hooker over Matt Srama as the Philippine representative struggles to recover from an ankle problem. Back-up nine, rookie Sam Irwin, has also gone down with an ankle problem so Falloon looks certain to continue to push the team around. This will end by default, at least for a short time, Cartwright's insistence on playing a hooking rotation and appease a large section of his critics.
Where they may struggle
Again it’s the backs which look susceptible, particularly at fullback. Incumbent William Zillman has been the target of some particularly scathing criticism from the clubs fan base. Coach Cartwright seems bereft of ideas and gave wing sensation and PNG star David Mead several games last season in this key position. Although Mead made a fair fist of it, he is by no means an NRL class fullback at this time. Swapping a world-class wing to morph him into a stop-gap fullback seems a desperate move although a recent poll of fans supported the concept.
This must be the break-out season for 5/8 Sezer. Whether he is at first or second receiver, he will need to put his stamp on the team's play and over-call his monster forward pack. It may have been intimidating for him last season but that year’s experience should now materialise as confidence.
With a range of partners on offer there is every chance that Cartwright will give Hazard a taste of NRL. If Kelly doesn’t recover fully from a potentially debilitating blood circulation problem in his feet that opportunity may come very quickly although his trial form has been good.
Rookies to watch
The media has been talking-up Likiliki, Tighe and Blair but the one to nearly slip under the radar has been ex-Bulldogs U20 backrow cum hooker Paul Carter, son of Panthers legend Steve. This young man has the rugby league world at his feet. He is hard and skilled and just the type of no-nonsense player that Cartwright likes.
The big plays
Will Cartwright stumble on a winning formula? Will Assistant Coach Henry stumble into the number one job? Will the team stumble in to the finals? There is little doubt in every Titans’ fan’s mind that the team has the potential to challenge in September although a place higher than eighth may be ambitious.
Injuries: Matt Srama (shoulder - Round 4), Sam Irwin (ankle - Round 6), Beau Falloon (ankle - Round 1), Greg Bird (elbow - 9's), Nate Myles (groin - Round 1), Brad Takairangi (ankle - 9's), Aiden Sezer (hamstring - Round 1), Ryan James (shoulder - Round 1).
Likely team Round 1 v Sharks (away)
1. William Zillman 2. Kevin Gordon 3. Maurice Blair 4. Brad Tighe 5. David Mead 6. Aiden Sezer 7. Albert Kelly 8. Ryan James 9. Beau Falloon 10. Luke Douglas 11. Greg Bird (c) 12. Nate Myles (c) 13. Ashley Harrison
Interchange: 14. Dave Taylor 15. Luke Bailey 16. Mark Minichiello 17. Paul Carter