The Gold Coast Titans managed to find their way into finals football during the 2021 season, but still have plenty of room for improvement in 2022.
That alone, given the form they both showed in Justin Holbrook’s side at the end of 2021, is enough to make Titans fans excited and make rival fans nervous, yet anticipate good quality games against the Gold Coast.
The loss of Jamal Fogarty could yet be an issue, but that is offset by the move of AJ Brimson into the halves, in a position where he played plenty of junior football.
It feels like the Titans should be marking 2022 as a season where the only way is up, particularly if they can see continued improvement out of David Fifita, and work rate out of middle forwards Tino Fa’asuamaleaui and Moeaki Fotuaika, who is undoubtedly among the most underrated props in the competition.
But despite the monstrous upside which seems to be with Holbrook’s side, there are still areas of concern, and things to address in the opening weeks and then right throughout the season.
Get them right, and the Titans could be anything, but get them wrong, and suddenly, they will be scrapping to make the top eight again - a position they certainly shouldn’t be in.
But with other teams from last year’s bottom eight likely to improve substantially, the Titans must do the same.
Here are the burning questions which could shape their season.
Can AJ Brimson become a half at NRL level?
AJ Brimson is one of the game’s most talented fullbacks.
It’s the little things which don’t tend to pop up on the stats sheet, but his game IQ is ridiculously good. He reads plays, is always there in support and for a man of his size, defends excellently more often than he doesn’t behind a team who the same can’t always be said about.
The emergence of Jayden Campbell has pushed him into the halves for 2022 though, which may not be the worst thing.
More time on the ball for Brimson could see him go to another level with his running and passing games being two of his strongest attributes.
However, there are question marks over his ability to be a kicker, and more broadly, over who will do the bulk of the orgasnising for the Titans. It’s likely Toby Sexton will be forced to take that role, however, whether it suits him at this level remains to be seen.
Sexton’s performances in taking pressure off Brimson could well dictate how successful this move is, and while it has the potential to work, it’s not set in stone.
What are the Titans doing at dummy half?
The Titans chased Brandon Smith hard for 2023, and looking at their current squad, there is little wonder why.
He could add some spark around the ruck, while Erin Clark is also at the club. Letting Mitch Rein depart when he had no other serious suitor at the time (he has now been picked up by the Parramatta Eels) seems an odd call given he was more than serviceable during 2021, defends strongly and would likely only get better as the team did the same around him.
Clark hasn’t set the world on fire, and Booth is something of an unknown quantity, while AJ Brimson last week spoke on the likelihood of Tanah Boyd - who is a half but has played as a bench utility - taking up the role.
None of the options seem world-beating though, and they need to come up with something in a hurry if 2022 is going to be a success given how important the position is.
At his best, David Fifita is about as close to unstoppable as any player in the competition.
At the other end of the spectrum, David Fifita drops the ball, misses tackles and seems to not know how to use his strength and size.
Simply put though, the Titans need him at his best. Justin Holbrook toyed with the idea of him playing off the bench at the back end of 2021, but let’s be real, David Fifita must start for the Gold Coast.
He has the ability to put a team on the back foot in a matter of minutes, and it’s no good him trying to do that when his side is already 12-0 down.
Consistency in performance and role is critical for Fifita and the Titans.
Will they be able to fix their defence?
The Titans had the worst defence of all sides who made the top eight in 2021 and then some.
The men from the party strip conceded 583 points (23.32 per game) throughout the course of the regular season, the worst of those in the top eight just below the Newcastle Knights, but almost 100 points more than the next team, being the Manly Sea Eagles.
While they will be rely on their attack to get themselves out of sticky situations, it won’t be the be all and end all. Teams will get better at these new rules, and those who adapt best could climb the ladder.
If the Titans can’t work out their defensive structures, they are more likely to take the snake down the ladder rather than climbing in the right direction.
While he didn’t consistently start at the Roosters being stuck behind Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Sio Siua Taukeiaho and Victor Radley in the middle third, as well as Sitili Tupouniua and Angus Crichton on the edge, his versatility made him a valuable commodity.
He was the first off the bench at the first sign of injury, of which there was plenty at the Roosters in 2021.
But he has not left the winning environment at Bondi for a bench role.
What Holbrook needs to work out is whether he is a second-rower to replace Kevin Proctor, a lock which will shift Tino Fa’asuamaleaui to the front row, or a prop which ensures Jarrod Wallace will come from the bench.
Whichever way you look at it, he increases the Titans depth, but finding him a starting role, and a consistent one, will be critical.