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Big changes on the glitter strip as the Titans begin the post-Hayne era. Rob Crosby previews their 2018 campaign.
With a new coach and a lack of drama on the Gold Coast, the Titans will be hoping reduced expectations bring about a change in fortune for a side reeling from the fallout of arguably the biggest player flop in the NRL era. Taking a pragmatic approach towards recruitment in an effort to achieve a premium return on investment, the Titans will be hopeful of drastically improving their standing through a solid roster and the wild card factor provided by Garth Brennan at the helm.
Coming into 2017 with cause for optimism following a surprise finals finish, the promise of continued improvement came to a thudding halt following a calamitous opening round loss to the Roosters. Managing to regain some confidence in the lead up to Origin, including a seminal victory over Melbourne at Suncorp Stadium, the initial off-field disagreements between coach Neil Henry and star signing Jarryd Hayne fractured to the point of no return heading into the final weeks of the season. With the side out of contention for the play-offs, a mounting injury toll preventing cohesion throughout the squad and a rarely present defensive resolve, the showdown between Henry and Hayne saw the former Canberra and North Queensland mentor part ways with the Titans, while in the aftermath of Fiji's World Cup campaign, the two time Dally M medalist was granted a release to return to Parramatta, bringing to an end a season best left forgotten.
Making minimal noise in the player market over the off-season, a host of journeymen including veteran fullback Michael Gordon, rising forward Jai Arrow and Penrith trio Leilani Latu, Mitch Rein and Bryce Cartwright will be looking to make the most of the fresh start on the Gold Coast, while the likes of Morgan Boyle, Max King, Karl Lawton and Tyrone Roberts-Davis will be hungry for more game time following promising rookie seasons.
Kicking off the season at home against the Raiders, an even share of home-and-away fixtures over the opening two months of the year should provide an early gauge of where the Titans stand under Garth Brennan. Likely to have minimal representation during the Origin period, the Round 17 home clash against a severely depleted Broncos outfit shapes as a pivotal encounter in the context of their season, while the side will finish off 2018 with four of their last six matches at CBUS Super Stadium.
Facing an upward battle to qualify for the finals given their 2017 standing, the likelihood of the Titans extending their season beyond Round 25 appears slim due to return fixtures against Melbourne, North Queensland, Sydney, Brisbane, Penrith and Manly.
Having gone from the heights of playing finals football to finishing second last in the space of a year, the lack of expectation on the Titans is the greatest asset for a club looking to improve. With the feud between Neil Henry and Jarryd Hayne derailing the 2017 season well before the untenable breaking point had already seen the side fall well out of contention for the play-offs, the absence of off-field drama will allow rookie coach Garth Brennan the breathing space to manage his roster without the pressure of individual egos undermining the prospects of the squad as a collective unit. Resolving the future of star playmaker Ashley Taylor in a sign of long-term management, the collectivist quality that saw the Titans prosper in 2016 prior to the arrival of Jarryd Hayne will allow the side to thrive together, rather than be judged by the actions of a single marquee player.
While the likes of Trent Robinson, Ricky Stuart, Michael Hagan and Phil Gould may have achieved the glory of premiership success in their first year as coach, the likelihood of Garth Brennan becoming only the ninth member of that illustrious group seems highly doubtful given the roster at his disposal. With few members of the Titans playing group experiencing regular finals and representative exposure, the mental muscle ingrained within the likes of Melbourne, Queensland and the Kangaroos is noticeably absent in the Gold Coast ranks. Best known for his achievements with the Penrith lower grades, having claimed multiple titles and developed a number of the Panthers most promising current stars through the NYC and ISP ranks, Brennan's success on the Gold Coast will be best measured in the years to come, rather than with the immediate roster at his disposal. Subsequently, while the Titans can expect to improve significantly upon their 15th placed standing, the chances of pressing for the premiership in 2018 are highly unlikely.
Recruited from Melbourne to bolster the Titans' forward pack, second rower Kevin Proctor will be hoping for a much-improved season following a tumultuous 2017 campaign. Regarded as one of the best edge runners in the league, a much-publicised off-field incident following the mid-year test proved costly, with New Zealand coach David Kidwell banning the 29-year-old from the Kiwis World Cup campaign. Eager to make amends, Proctor shapes as a pivotal figure for a relatively young Titans squad that boast a lack of experience in both years and big matches. Having been a complementary figure among the Storm's star-studded roster, Proctor has the opportunity to impart his knowledge amongst the likes of Max King, Morgan Boyle and Keegran Hipgrave, while providing halfback Ashley Taylor with an attacking threat capable of causing plenty of havoc on the right edge. Producing respectable on-field performances in 2017, Proctor has yet to truly deliver on his promise at the Titans, but with plenty to prove expect him to step up to the challenge.
While Kane Elgey appears to be the default partner to Ashley Taylor in the halves, unknown playmaker Alexander Brimson will have his sights set on giving Garth Brennan plenty to ponder throughout the season. Gaining a taste of elite rugby league during the Auckland 9s last season, the 19-year-old utility will be out to turn the form that saw him claim the Titans NYC Player of the Year title into a first grade debut. Selected in the Queensland Under 20s Emerging squad, Brimson is rated among the best players yet to crack the NRL, but with sparse playmaking options and the departure of Tyrone Roberts, expect the Centenary Panthers junior to feature in first grade at some point in 2018.
Gains | Jai Arrow (Broncos), Bryce Cartwright, Leilani Latu & Mitch Rein (Panthers), Jack Stockwell & Brendan Elliot (Knights), Michael Gordon (Roosters), Brenko Lee (Bulldogs), Will Matthews (Dragons).
Losses | Jarryd Hayne (Eels), Chris McQueen (Wests Tigers), Ben Nakubuwai (Salford), Agnatius Paasi & Leivaha Pulu (Warriors), Nathaniel Peteru (Leeds), Tyrone Roberts (Warrington), Dan Sarginson (Wigan), Paterika Vaivai (Leigh), Daniel Vidot & William Zillman (retired)