WESTS Tigers have not played NRL finals since 2011.
That’s worse than Newcastle and on par with the Warriors — the competition’s perennial battlers in recent times.
Ivan Cleary was brought in to save the club and turn its fortunes around. You can write 2017 off but now fans want to start seeing results.
Factor in the loss of Mitchell Moses, James Tedesco and Aaron Woods, and Cleary’s task seems more than a little tricky.
Luke Brooks is the only member of the ‘Big Four’ left at the club, and the starting 17 has had an overhaul of sorts over the off-season.
There’s some extra muscle in the forward pack, some extra flare in the halves, and a new fullback who’s got some big shoes to fill.
Will we see a different Wests Tigers side this year?
Foxsports.com.au is previewing every NRL team’s best 17.
As always, there will be some contentious decisions — and some unlucky omissions.
Scroll down and leave a comment to have your say.
NB: These line ups don’t take into account current injuries (unless they’re season ending) or suspensions.
Russell Packer and Ben Matulino
The Tigers have plenty of talent in the backline and in the halves, but often it’s their forward pack letting the side down.
In 2017 the team was ranked ninth for most metres gained per game. And now they’ve lost their best forward from that season, Aaron Woods.
Someone has to pick up the slack. And it comes down to big bopper recruits Russell Packer and Ben Matulino.
The pair will line up on either side of the ruck and be charged with laying the platform for the likes of Luke Brooks, Josh Reynolds, and Tui Lolohea to play off.
If they fail in their mission it could seriously derail the Tigers’ season.
The starting props hold the key to the club’s success in 2018.
He moved across the ditch looking for an opportunity mid-season.
He barely got one at the Warriors during four years of being thrown between the wing, centre, fullback, the halves, and any other position that needed filling.
Now he’s finally going to be given first crack at the No.1 jumper.
The shoes he’ll be filling are those of James Tedesco, so there’s plenty of pressure on Lolohea already.
Ivan Cleary is a fair coach but needs to do what he thinks is best for the team. If Lolohea doesn’t take his chance quickly he could find himself shafted from fullback quicksmart.
And if the rest of the backline is performing without him, it will be hard to find a spot for him in the 17.
Lolohea’s rugby league fate is in his own hands.
<big>THE RISING STAR</big>
The 21-year-old will be fighting it out with Matt McIlwrick for the No. 9 jersey, and the other is likely to come off the bench in a rake rotation.
Liddle had a breakout 2017 season with 13 games before a shoulder injury ended his year in round 19.
But he did enough to win the club’s rookie of the year award, and earn a contract extension to the end of the 2019 season.
We saw glimpses of brilliance last year and now it’s up to Liddle to step up and become a genuine NRL-grade hooker.
He’ll be wanting to wrestle that starting spot off McIlwrick and make it his own.
<big>IT’S A BIG YEAR FOR …</big>
He’s the only member of the ‘Big Four’ left at the club, and all the expectation — rightly or wrongly — rests on his shoulders.
Since becoming the Tigers’ halfback in 2014 Brooks has failed to lead the team to finals. Their best effort was ninth place in 2016.
Not that he’s solely to blame for the club’s recent woes, of course. But there’s a lot of responsibility and pressure that comes with being the halfback of a struggling franchise.
James Tedesco is gone. As is Mitchell Moses and Aaron Woods.
Brooks is the last man standing and all eyes will be on his performances in 2018.
Once touted as a future Origin star, Brooks would be happy with simply playing a finals game for his club.
His new combination with Josh Reynolds will be crucial to the team’s campaign.
THE BEST 17
1. Tui Lolohea
2. Kevin Naiqama
3. Moses Suli
4. Taane Milne
5. David Nofoaluma
6. Josh Reynolds
7. Luke Brooks
8. Russell Packer
9. Matt McIlwrick
10. Ben Matulino
11. Chris Lawrence
12. Chris McQueen
13. Elijah Taylor
14. Jacob Liddle
15. Alex Twal
16. Sauaso Sue