As sporting seasons begin, experts make fearless predictions based on logic, past results and player movements. The 2016 NRL season was no different to any other before it.
Those in the know presented a remarkably uniformed outlook on the upcoming year and a real pattern emerged as one looked at the predictions across a wide range of sources.
The general consensus was that the Broncos would take that extra step this year, with such a young squad and the developing James Roberts and Anthony Milford both a year older, their attacking options would be too tough to contain for most defences.
It was felt that, with Sam Thaiday, Corey Parker, Matt Gillett and Josh McGuire up front and the sharpness of Ben Hunt and Darius Boyd out wide, the Brisbane boys were ready to take the next step after a heartbreaking loss in last year’s grand final.
There were also a few other trends that were apparent. The Bulldogs would slip, the Sharks would be a top four contender and Melbourne would be thereabouts as per usual.
There were some who envisaged the slide of the Bunnies and the Roosters and most were in agreement that the Dragons overachieved last year. The Tigers would struggle and the Knights were in for a very, very long season.
One commonly held belief appeared to be the plight predicted for the Gold Coast Titans. Without a semi-final appearance since 2010, the collective opinion was that this dry spell would continue for another year, at least until the investment that has been made in youth could start to pay dividends as the young Titans grew into men.
A snapshot of the predictions is quite alarming reading in light of where the Titans currently stand. Experts such as Tony Webeck, Chris Kennedy, Martin Gabor and Jack Brady had the men from the Gold Coast finishing 14th, 16th, 15th and 15th respectively on the NRL.com website.
All astute judges I am sure, as much of what they saw in their crystal balls has indeed come to fruition over the last four months.
Fox Sports had the Titans in 16th and Greg Alexander suggested, “It’s going to be a tough year for the Titans.” Betting agencies across the board had the team as close as possible to rank outsiders and odds of 150-1 were not uncommon.
The well respected Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘experts’ (they really didn’t identify exactly who these people were) slotted the Titans in at sixteenth as well and introduced their analysis of the team with a rather melodramatic title, ‘Let’s take a walk down fair dinkum avenue.’ They followed this up with the blunt. ‘It’s going to be a long year for the veteran coach.’
Perhaps they were right, it might be a long year for Neil Henry. The off-season trip may have to be shifted back a week or two as the Titans might be engaged in semi-final football for the first time in six seasons.
This would be the most remarkable achievement for a club that seemed doomed to dwell in the cellar for the entire season.
If it wasn’t bad enough that the brilliant young James Roberts left to head north and experienced toiler Nate Myles headed for Manly, the season began in the most disastrous way with the loss of promising young half Kane Elgey.
This doubled in magnitude after the Titans spent wasted weeks of manpower and locked away vast sums of many to lure the previously immovable Daly Cherry-Evans from the Sea Eagles. Two to three quality players could have been tempted to the club using the same funds in the time that passed between the original meetings and his eventual eleventh hour back flip.
The Titans had invested a mighty lot of eggs in that basket and when the deal fell through the moving on of Aidan Sezer, the injury to Elgey and the brilliant yet incredibly inexperienced Ash Taylor saw the coach in a precarious position.
Somehow, over the next nineteen weeks the Titans defied all the odds and currently sit in seventh position on the ladder with eight wins and nine losses. It’s not so much the position on the ladder as the impressive way they have played that reflects the masterful job that Henry has done in season 2016.
The commonly held belief has always been that the Titans have to pay a little overs to get real talent to come and hang out on the Gold Coast. Why? Well, they can come across as a forgotten team, a little out of the spotlight and not a team full of international players seemingly capable of seriously contending for a title.
The lifestyle would undoubtedly be great, yet despite the obvious attractions, the Titans entered the season as a bottom four team in most people’s eyes.
So how has Henry done it?
Pretty simple really. Discipline and structure have been the cornerstone of the Titans’ game. Their honest appraisal of their limitations has led to a simplicity of game plan based on completions and defence.
They have lurked around the top five in total completions and sat at around 78 per cent completions for most of the season. Averaging only four handling errors per game also helps.
It’s amazing what you can do with a team that turns up each week and gives all they have. The inspired play of Ash Taylor has been a godsend as has the consistency of Greg Bird and Ryan James in the forwards.
The improved play of some of the more unheralded players has also aided the steady climb. The much-maligned Tyrone Roberts and a blossoming Nathan Peats have been unsung yet heroic in much of their play.
Despite solid stats and a strong position on the ladder, the biggest scalp for the Titans this year has been the Raiders. They did push the Dogs and the Sharks to the brink but do need to knock off at least one bigger scalp in the next six weeks.
The run home is mixed with tough matches against the Cowboys and Sharks along with some very winnable games against the Knights, Panthers, Tigers and Warriors.
Whatever happens, Henry has produced something of a miracle with this team, who seemed destined to fail and potentially call his job into question. If they can complete the dream and qualify for September action, I for one will stand and applaud.
No doubt they will be outclassed by one of the more gifted and powerful teams, however, with one or two more elite players added to this squad, the coach just might be on to something.