NRL Round 1 predicted teams: The Tigers might have signed Luai, but their 2024 already looks painful
As part of a series profiling the expected Round 1 sides for all 17 NRL clubs in 2024, it’s time to see if the Tigers can lift themselves off the bottom of the ladder.
It’s a brave new world at the Wests Tigers. A new board, new coach and a new marquee signing have all gone a long way towards changing the mood around the joint, with fans finally seeing a speck of light at the end of what has been a very dark tunnel.
Yet these are only the early days. The 2024 season looks likely to be another slog, with the goal simply not to finish last and to continue to build vibes ahead of Jarome Luai’s arrival in 2025.
Benji Marshall debuts in the box and will be given every chance to build a side for his new star playmaker, even if that might at times involve sacrificing results in the here and now.
Upstairs, Shane Richardson has enjoyed an early win in getting Luai’s deal over the line and now has to take on a roster that is both bloated and lacking quality.
Every outlet has competing ideas of who is in the Top 30: the NRL has them on exactly 30, but with four already signed to the main list for 2025, while the Tigers themselves list 35 including a few development deals, plus another five on train and trials.
Either way, lots of guys might get a crack this year and Richo will have a big job on his hands to get the cap in order and strengthen before Luai turns up.
Until then, it might be more of the same for the Tigers.
How long have you got? There’s three new halves to start with – not including the superstar himself – with Jayden Sullivan, Aidan Sezer and Latu Fainu all in the mix for a jumper to begin the year.
Justin Olam is also there, or at least soon will be, with a move from Melbourne to be announced imminently, and the other Fainu brother, Samuela, also comes across.
A more left-field option is Solomon Alaimalo, the former Kiwi rugby union winger, who gets a chance in the NRL.
That’s just the signings. The Tigers rinsed through players at a rate of knots last year as they swirled around the NRL’s plughole, with the upshot that a lot of their younger guys got time in the top grade.
Josh Feledy, Kit Laulilii and Brandon Tumeth all got single appearances while Tallyn Da Silva and Justin Matamua got a little more, but most NRL fans would still struggle to pick them out of a line-up.
If things don’t go well straight off the bat, expect the Tigers to cut their losses again and give more of their prospects a run.
Despite the hugely bloated squad, a lot have left. There’s the big name departure of Luke Brooks to Manly, but also Tommy Talau and Aitasi James (both also Northern Beaches bound) and Daine Laurie to Penrith and Tuki Simpkins to the Dolphins.
Brandon Wakeham, far from their worst in 2023, is yet to sign anywhere and Triston Reilly has returned to Union with the Waratahs.
As part of the Olam deal, Shawn Blore will move the other way and, if they had their way, Nofoaluma and perhaps even David Klemmer would also depart to free up cap space.
Junior Tupou, whom one suspects they would have liked to keep, is still on deck for now but will go to the Dolphins for 2025.
Key spots to unlock?
It’s hard to pick a team without knowing how a new coach will play, but given the roster, it is at least possible to split between those almost certain to feature and those who will compete for a starting place.
The forwards pick themselves somewhat. Klemmer and Stefano Utoikamanu are established in the front row, as are Isaiah Papali’I and John Bateman on their edges, with Fonua Pole at the back and Api Koroisau in the middle.
As starting packs go, it’s far from the worst. Alexes Seyfath and Twal look likeliest to continue off the bench, as does Jake Simpkins, if only as second choice hooker to spell Api.
The backs, however, are anyone’s guess. Jahream Bula will be there at 1 and new arrival Olam at 4, but pretty much every other spot is a maybe.
Junior Tupou impressed on one wing but is now leaving, which might open the door for Charlie Staines, Brent Naden or Asu Kepaoa to get a gig. Starford To’a played centre all last year and went alright, but he’d be no guarantee to start there.
With so many kids, any could come in and make a difference, or not get a chance at all, or drift in and out inconsistently. Really, anything is possible given that the Tigers have a lot of options but few obvious first choices.
The spine isn’t much better. Not only did they lose both starting halves and sign three new ones, the newcomers all come with big asterisks.
Sezer hasn’t played NRL in years, Latu Fainu hasn’t played it at all. Sullivan has at least been in the top grade, but wasn’t always first pick at the Dragons – who were the only team as bad as the Tigers.
Benji will have Luai in mind with whoever he goes with, and it’ll be no guarantee that the two who start the year will be the same who end it. More than any other side, perhaps, the Tigers’ trials will tell us the most.
Round 1 predicted team
1 Jahream Bula
2 Junior Tupou
3 Starford To’a
4 Justin Olam
5 Charlie Staines
6 Jayden Sullivan
7 Aidan Sezer
8 David Klemmer
9 Api Koroisau
10 Stefano Utoikamanu
11 Isaiah Papali’i
12 John Bateman
13 Fonua Pole
14 Jake Simpkin
15 Asu Kepaoa
16 Alex Twal
17 Alex Seyfarth
Other squad members: Adam Doueihi (injured), Brent Naden, David Nofoaluma, Josh Feledy, Lachlan Galvin, Latu Fainu, Solomon Alaimalo, Brandon Tumeth, Justin Matamua, Kit Laulili, Samuela Fainu, Tallyn Da Silva, Sione Fainu, Jordan Miller
Development players: Josh Finau, Declan Casey, Reuben Porter, Manuel Loizou, Nick Lui-Toso, Alex Lobb, Tony Sukkar, Solomone Saukuru, Chris Fa’agutu