Many have them slated as likely wooden spoon candidates but the Titans players will not have a bar of it. They have belief within themselves that they can perform well and still have a handy side that will play with heart. They were set to head into 2016 with boom half Kane Elgey running the ship but he was struck down with an ACL injury that threw their spanner in the works. That leaves a three horse race for the vacant halves roles, but just who will get them? The departure of James Roberts after the contract bungle was a big blow, and the Titans also now have that vacant back-line spot open. Who will get that spot? And with somewhat of a change in playing personnel across the board – although not quite getting the ultimate man they wanted – just who will step up for the Titans to show the other teams that they do not intend to be also-rans.
Something that will give the Titans confidence heading into the NRL season is their strong showing at the NRL Auckland Nines. Some see the competition as futile and irrelevant but for the players in it, it is a chance to get the cobwebs out, get some sort of footy under their belt and for new stars to emerge. And boy, did some stars emerge. Ash Taylor was a strong performer alongside Tyrone Roberts throughout the tournament, with both players showing some good form to strengthen their claims to be the starting halves duo. Perhaps the Titans best player across the entire tournament, however, was Agnatius Paasi. A recruit last year who wants to make the most of the opportunity, he grabbed the bull by the horns and went with it and produced some blistering runs and offloads to set up countless opportunities and score numerous tries himself. His form was such that you would expect him to feature in the starting line-up either as a middle forward or an edge forward.
Seasons of late have not been all rosy for the Titans and off-field dramas have plagued them for the last couple of years, detracting from what they are trying to achieve on the field. But with a renewed sense of optimism within the club after some astute buys, determined players and staff and a new season ahead, there is a real belief within the camp that they can be a dark-horse and perform with the roster they have. Having Kane Elgey, a tremendous young player who showed his skills throughout the 2015 season would have been a huge bonus but his ACL injury at training put a spanner in the works. That left the Titans with two spots to fill and three players to choose from – Daniel Mortimer, Ash Taylor and Tyrone Roberts. It is an interesting conundrum for coach Neil Henry, with all three bringing something unique to the table. Perhaps the most interesting of the trio is Ash Taylor. Playing one NRL game to date during his time at the Brisbane Broncos, he is highly rated by many across numerous clubs and has emerged as a real contender for the role. Although still young, he is a natural play-maker and that sort of youth and exuberance could be just what the Titans need in 2016.
Also uncertain is the exact formation and line-up the Titans will go with when it comes to their back-line. Their best player last year, the man who often carried them at times in James Roberts, sensationally left the club, after he became disillusioned and disappointed with them after it was revealed that a contract bungle had made his newly signed contract irrelevant. As the Titans seek to move on from that disappointing outcome, it presents a new challenge for coach Neil Henry as he works out just who is going to play in their back-line. The likes of David Mead, Nene Macdonald and Will Zillman are obvious choices, but with a couple of spots still up for grabs, many Titans fans are keeping a close eye on the outcome. New recruit Chris McQueen is a good chance to play in the centres if reports are to be believed – a position he is comfortable in despite playing mostly back-row – as is youngster Brian Kelly, who is also highly rated among the club. Whoever is chosen does have big shoes to fill but with the belief around the Titans camp, they will have plenty of support from all within it.
The last few years have seen some real experience lost from the Titans side across their team in the likes of Kevin Gordon, Nate Myles, Luke Bailey, Mark Minichiello and others, and as such, it has put the Titans through a bit of a rebuilding phase. But all teams go through phases like that and with the emergence of such players like Paasi, the veteran experience in the likes of Greg Bird and David Mead and the emerging in Ash Taylor, Brian Kelly and Greg Lelesiauo, optimism is at an all-time high out Gold Coast way. As to who will be their captain to lead the team, that is also unknown. A former captain at the club in Greg Bird is the front-runner, as he only lost the role in the first place due to a previous indiscretion. Other players are also captain material with new recruit Zeb Taia looming as an option, as well as veteran back-line players Will Zillman and Mead.
It is important to re-iterate the Titans self-belief given the relative lack of it among rival fans and although they may lack the overall fire-power to go deep into the finals, they have as much of a chance as any to progress and potentially make the eight, especially if they are resilient and play for each other to prove the doubters wrong. With a vital mix of youth and experience, the Titans have a chance to show that upheaval and turmoil can be overcome, as they look to put that all behind them and focus on what they love to do and what really matters. Rugby league.
Best Buy: All teams need a veteran prop that is big, strong and coming off a solid season and the Titans have to look around for a middle forward that fit that bill. With the departure of Nate Myles, there was a whole in terms of experience in their prop department but they were able to secure David Shillington from the Canberra Raiders. Excited to return to QLD to play, he is just what the doctor ordered for the club in his role. Big, strong and powerful, he performed well for the Raiders over the course of the 2015 season and proved that he is still a very handy player that can make inroads. He, along with Ironman Luke Douglas, form the back-bone of the Titans front-row stocks and he will lead from the front given his experience.
Most Promising Talent: Although his dad is no longer with the club, Jed Cartwright is a young player that is making the most of his opportunities. Performing in the Titans Holden Cup side last year and likely to do so again this year, the Cartwright namesake will live on in Titans folklore, particularly if the young utility gets an opportunity late in the season or even in 2017. A dynamic player, his size and surprising quickness put him in good stead against his opponents. Although a first-grade opportunity is unlikely to start the year or even halfway through it, blooding youngsters with just a couple of rounds to go does happen often and if he plays his cards right, performs and is consistent across the games that he plays, he may well be a youngster that gets the opportunity. And if he was to get one, he is good enough to take it.
2016 Gains: Nathan Friend (New Zealand Warriors, 2016), Jeff Lynch (Canberra Raiders, 2016), Nene Macdonald (Mid Season: Sydney Roosters, 2017), Chris McQueen (South Sydney Rabbitohs, 2017), Nathaniel Peteru (Mid Season: New Zealand Warriors, 2016), Leivaha Pulu (2016), Tyrone Roberts (Newcastle Knights, 2017), David Shillington (Canberra Raiders, 2017), Zeb Taia (Catalan Dragons, 2017), Ashley Taylor (Brisbane Broncos, 2017)
Our predicted line-up:
1. Will Zillman
2. David Mead
3. Josh Hoffman
4. Chris McQueen
5. Nene Macdonald
6. Tyrone Roberts
7. Ash Taylor
8. Luke Douglas
9. Nathan Friend
10. David Shillington
11. Zeb Taia
12. Agnatius Paasi
13. Greg Bird (C)
14. Ryan James
15. Eddy Pettybourne
16. Matt Robinson
17. Matt Srama