Wests Tigers are NRL’s biggest improver in experience in 2018
Author Alicia Newton
Mon 29 Jan 2018, 11:13 AM
The Wests Tigers and Newcastle Knights are the big improvers in the experience department for 2018, while the 14 other clubs head into the new season having lost more than they’ve gained.
After Ivan Cleary’s team finished 14th and the Knights 16th on the 2017 Telstra Premiership ladder, it is no surprise the NRL’s most active clubs in the player market have boosted their rosters with a wealth of game-day knowledge.
According to NRL.com Stats, the Tigers fielded last season’s second youngest squad – falling behind finalists Penrith (average age 24.1) with an average of 24.4.
Newcastle and the Gold Coast Titans closely followed, providing three of the bottom four sides from last season.
The departures of Aaron Woods, James Tedesco and retirement of Matt Ballin left Wests Tigers coach Ivan Cleary chasing experience – a task he made look easy with Josh Reynolds, Russell Packer and Ben Matulino all coming on board.
“I think we were definitely too young the last couple of years,” Wests Tigers back-rower Chris Lawrence said.
"It’s great to have young kids and outstanding talent, but you need a balance. As a young guy, it’s hard to hang in games and you do get inconsistent performances. If you have too many in your side you are inconsistent and that’s how we’ve been the last few years.
"The NRL is such a tough competition … to be consistent in 24 rounds you need a balance of experienced players.
"There’s going to be games where things aren’t going well and games are going against you. Having experienced guys in the team [is where] you learn how to hang on in games.
“If you’re in a game with 10 minutes to go, that’s where your young and exciting guys are your match winners.”
After struggling over the past three seasons with an inexperienced squad, the Knights are set for a 44-game increase per player.
The Novocastrians averaged 60 games per player in 2017 – the fewest of any side – but the addition of Mitchell Pearce, Jacob Lillyman, Aidan Guerra and Chris Heighington immediately lifts the club and offers coach Nathan Brown some much-needed experience to go with the largely unproven squad he had at his disposal over the previous two years.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Brisbane Broncos and Cronulla Sharks will enter the year having lost more than 750 games of NRL manpower over the off-season.
The Broncos have taken the biggest hit and are set to undergo a changing of the guard following the departure of Adam Blair (Warriors), Benji Marshall (Wests Tigers) and Ben Hunt (Dragons).
Their highest-profile recruit for 2018, Jack Bird, slightly eases the blow, but Wayne Bennett’s men have still lost a large amount of experience without much in return.
Cronulla aren’t far behind the Broncos when it comes to shedding playing experience, losing 646 games on the back of the departures of Heighington and Penrith-bound James Maloney.
With an average age of 27 in 2017 – the oldest side in the competition – it is no secret coach Shane Flanagan was desperate to add youth to his squad.
Worryingly, the Titans remain in the bottom five when it comes to experience after losing club stalwart Will Zillman and the disgruntled Jarryd Hayne.
Manly’s discrepancy could have been worse given the club had already lost veterans Brett Stewart and Steve Matai before a ball was kicked in 2017.
Neither Stewart or Matai were included in the totals, along with Ballin, Isaac De Gois (Parramatta) and Rory Kostjaysn (Newcastle), who were all forced into retirement prior to the start of last season.
Melbourne are without 300-game halfback Cooper Cronk, but the premiers gain an experienced campaigner with the return of veteran Ryan Hoffman. Former Bulldogs prop Sam Kasiano (139 games) replaces Tohu Harris (117) and Jordan McLean (86).
The Sydney Roosters have gained Cronk’s wealth of knowledge after losing Pearce, Guerra, Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Michael Gordon (225 games) in the past 12 months.
Canterbury welcome the additions of Woods and Kieran Foran to Belmore but have said farewell to seasoned regulars Kasiano, James Graham and Josh Reynolds.
The Bulldogs don’t lose too much experience with the change of personnel but go into the season with a rookie NRL coach in Dean Pay.
Canberra, Penrith and South Sydney will head into the 2018 season with similar averages having not lost many experienced players.
The Bunnies will be without Bryson Goodwin out wide but struck gold with the addition of Dane Gagai, while Maloney (203 games) almost offsets the loss of Matt Moylan (89 games) and Mitch Rein (137 games).
North Queensland had minimal changes over the off-season but welcomed McLean to the squad. Arguably their biggest loss, Kalyn Ponga, only has nine games to his name.
Parramatta have lost 256-gamer Frank Pritchard to retirement but gained Hayne, who is set for his 200th NRL appearance in the opening round of the season.
The inclusions of Tony Williams and Kane Evans have the Eels well-placed in terms of their 97-game per player average in 2017.
The Warriors have lost a series of campaigners in Lillyman, Hoffman, Foran and Matulino, but don’t lose out too much with Blair, Harris, Blake Green and Gerard Beale coming on board.
St George Illawarra underwent a big cleanout while only recruiting a handful of players. Their quality over quantity approach is set to lower their squad experience average, but not by a huge margin.
They lose out by 435 games but are arguably in with their best shot of finals football in years having recruited Graham and Hunt to line up in the Red V.