The Wests Tigers’ pre-season has had all the trademarks of an Ivan Cleary rebuild, but at his third club as an NRL coach he says he’s further along the track at this point than before.
As has become typical of a Cleary tenure, the coach’s first pre-season with his new club has been one of the busiest in the NRL.
Nine front-line players and a new assistant coach in Brett Hodgson have arrived at Concord, to go with the four remaining who he debuted after coming in to replace sacked Jason Taylor midway through last season.
Sound familiar? It should.
In 2012, his first year at Penrith, Cleary brought eight new players to the club and handed six other players their maiden NRL appearance.
Two years later, they reached the third week of the finals after Cleary weeded through the recruits he wanted to keep to gel with the young and exciting talent at the club.
It was a similar story at the Warriors in 2006.
Hamstrung by salary cap issues that cost them four competition points before the start of the season, Cleary debuted four players in his first season and brought eight to the club over his initial two pre-seasons.
Again, he took them to the third week of the finals two years later, and by his final year at the club in 2011 they’d made the grand final.
“It’s all I’ve really known,” Cleary told AAP of his reputation for rebuilding struggling teams.
"I feel like we’re ahead of where we first were in 2012 at the Panthers though.
“Coming in mid-year last year wasn’t ideal in some respects but because we were able to get a little bit of traction last year it’s given us a bit of a leg up on the journey.”
Cleary’s recruits are from far and wide.
None, aside from returning club legend Benji Marshall, carry the star power of a James Tedesco, Aaron Woods or Mitchell Moses, players they have lost.
But instead Tigers officials hope they’ve got value for money to allow for a much deeper roster.
Tuimoala Lolohea should finally find a home at fullback after arriving to replace Moses in the halves midway through last season.
Josh Reynolds brings with him the enthusiasm he became famous for at Canterbury. Kiwi internationals Ben Matulino and Russell Packer bulk up the front row while the dangerous Mahe Fonua is expected to be a bargain buy in the backs.
And players are promising a more attacking approach gelled together after a largely injury-free pre-season.
“Pre-season is important every year but there is a bit of new direction,” Cleary said.
“All the new guys have turned up motivated and looking to train hard and looking to add value. Not just on the training field and in the gym but also just in and around the place.”
The other notable departure from the Tigers’ pre-season was the media scrum that dogged them in the past due to issues like the Taylor-Robbie Farah saga.
The club now has the most settled roster in terms of players signed for next season, meaning the focus can finally be about football.
“The guys who have been here for the past two or three years have mentioned more than once how it’s nice to be able to just focus on the job at hand,” Cleary said.
"I know I felt when I got here last year that it was just a bit of a frenzy … I think it definitely takes its toll.
“We’re just trying to get to a point where our football puts us in the news, and hopefully for the positive.”
STATS THAT MATTER
Ladder finishes over the past three seasons: 2017 - 15th, 2016 - 9th, 2015 - 14th
Coach: Ivan Cleary
Gains: Mahe Fonua (Hull FC), Pita Godinet (Manly), Benji Marshall (Brisbane), Ben Matulino, Tuimoala Lolohea (Warriors), Chris McQueen (Gold Coast), Taane Milne, Russell Packer (St George Illawarra), Josh Reynolds (Canterbury), Robbie Rochow (Melbourne), Corey Thompson (Widness), Alex Twal (Parramatta)
Losses: Matt Ballin, Jamal Idris (retired), Kyle Lovett (Leigh), Jeremy Marshall-King (Canterbury), Mitchell Moses (Parramatta), Jordan Rankin (Huddersfield), Ava Seumanufagai (Cronulla), James Tedesco (Sydney Roosters), Aaron Woods (Canterbury)
Best team: 1. Tuimoala Lolohea, 2. David Nofoaluma, 3. Taane Milne, 4. Kevin Naiqama, 5. Mahe Fonua, 6. Josh Reynolds, 7. Luke Brooks, 8. Ben Matulino, 9. Jacob Liddle, 10. Russell Packer, 11. Chris Lawrence, 12. Chris McQueen, 13. Elijah Taylor, 14. Benji Marshall, 15. Alex Twal, 16. Robbie Rochow, 17. Sauaso Sue