Wests Tigers’ coach Michael Maguire will be looking to get off to a winning start as they host the Manly Sea Eagles in a much anticipated Round 1 clash at Leichhardt Oval tomorrow night.
The Tigers started the season on fire last year, winning five of their opening six matches, before faltering to finish 9th, which was still a higher placed finish than many expected from a largely unheralded side, after the losses of James Tedesco, Mitchell Moses and Aaron Woods.
Manly had a nightmare 2018 under Trent Barrett, finishing 15th with just seven wins, which culminated in Des Hasler taking back the reins of the Club he steered to Premierships in 2008 and 2011.
Despite not making the finals over the past seven seasons, the Wests Tigers have an excellent Round 1 record, having recorded victories in each of the past four seasons in Round 1, including upsetting the Roosters 10-8 last season at ANZ Stadium.
The Tigers have also won four of their past five matches against the Sea Eagles, beating them 38-12 at Brookvale in Round 6 last season, before clinging on for a 22-20 victory at Campbelltown in Round 24.
The joint venture has a 75% success rate at Leichhardt Oval in matches against Manly, including the 30-26 victory at Leichhardt in 2017 where a try in the final minutes to Malakai Watene-Zelezniak sealed a comeback victory.
Wests Tigers have had an injury plagued pre-season with Chris Lawrence expected to miss up to three months with facial fractures.
Four players will make their debut for the Club including ex-Roosters, Ryan Matterson and Paul Momirovski. Robert Jennings scored 19 tries last season for Souths and will start on the right wing, whilst young prop Thomas Mikaele will make his debut off the bench.
Fellow veteran Robbie Farah, and Luke Brooks, will hold the keys, along with Marshall, to try and get their side’s attack flowing, as the Tigers struggled for points in 2018, scoring only 61 tries which was the least in the NRL.
Alex Twal has been promoted to the starting front row after a strong trial performance against the Warriors, which has seen big name signing from 2018, Russell Packer, surprisingly demoted to the bench.
Des Hasler has some problems of his own, with the Sea Eagles ranked last defensively in 2018, having conceded over 600 points at an average of over 25 points per game.
Whilst Hasler has his hands full there, he still has some marquee talent including halfback and Captain Daly Cherry-Evans, lock Jake Trbojevic, hooker Api Koroisau and front rower Martin Tapau. However, the side looks inexperienced in the backline, with Brendan Elliot filling in at fullback, and a rookie winger in Reuben Garrick.
Both former Tigers Curtis Sironen and Martin Tapau will be up for big games against their former Clubs, with Sironen making his return from an ACL injury which saw him miss more than half the season last year.
In two big blows for Manly, star fullback Tom Trbojevic is out with an ankle injury sustained in the trial loss to Cronulla.
Dylan Walker also misses the game after being struck out due to the NRL’s new stance on player behaviour. Manly will have to overcome a poor opening round record, having won just one of their previous five Round 1 encounters.
The Wests Tigers enter the game as slight favourites, however much is unknown about both sides under new coaches, and with both missing some key players.
The Tigers look to have a stronger 17 in terms of First Grade experience across the park, however Manly may have an edge in speed and power, although their backline and bench both look very short of experience.
The Tigers had a poor record as favourites in 2018, slipping up against the likes of Parramatta, Newcastle, Gold Coast and the Bulldogs in games they were favoured to win.
If they wish to take the step up and make the finals in 2019, these are the sorts of games they will need to grind out a win, including this Manly side missing a few pieces.
The Tigers managed just one win from their three games at Leichhardt Oval last season, but should have a strong home crowd behind them.
With plenty of rain around Sydney the past few days, we can expect slightly heavy conditions which may suit a Tigers’ side lacking a little bit of speed out wide.
Wests Tigers vs Manly Sea Eagles
Saturday 16 March, 5.30pm at Leichhardt Oval
WESTS TIGERS: Corey Thompson, Mahe Fonua, Paul Momirovski, Esan Marsters, Robert Jennings, Benji Marshall (c), Luke Brooks, Ben Matulino, Robbie Farah, Alex Twal, Ryan Matterson, Luke Garner, Elijah Taylor. Interchange: Russell Packer, Thomas Mikaele, Josh Aloiai, Michael Chee-Kam. Reserves: Josh Reynolds, Matthew Eisenhuth, Jacob Liddle, Chris McQueen.
MANLY SEA EAGLES: Brendan Elliot, Jorge Taufua, Moses Suli, Brad Parker, Reuben Garrick, Kane Elgey, Daly Cherry-Evans (c), Addin Fonua-Blake, Apisai Koroisau, Martin Taupau, Joel Thompson, Curtis Sironen, Jake Trbojevic. Interchange: Trent Hodkinson, Jack Gosiewski, Kelepi Tanginoa, Toafofoa Sipley. Reserves: Tevita Funa, Cade Cust, Lloyd Perrett, Lachlan Croker.