The 2018 season shapes as a make or break for Wests Tigers halfback Luke Brooks.
A prodigious talent coming through the Tigers ranks with his good mate and five-eighth Mitch Moses. With Moses leaving for western Sydney rivals Parramatta mid-season last year, Brooks was left to carry the team without his partner for the remainder of the season with Tigers own mid-season recruit Tuimoala Lolohea as a makeshift five-eighth.
This year Brooks will be partnering Josh Reynolds, a former Bulldogs fan favourite, who has come to the Tigers on a big dollar three-year deal. He will also have Tigers legend Benji Marshall who has come back to the club to finish off his celebrated career.
It is imperative that Brooks makes it clear that this is his team. That he will be the player to guide and game manage Ivan Cleary's game plan. Brooks is now five years and 82 games into his career but it feels he has not advanced any further than when he made his debut with Benji Marshall in 2013.
Initially, he had Robbie Farah being the major influence on the team. He has had three coaches in his short career, injuries and off-field dramas which have curtailed his growth.
Still only 23. he has time to go from potential to an influential playmaker. Under coach Cleary the Tigers finally have stability. They also have a coach who is a proven, smart and calm operator. How he uses both Reynolds and Marshall is yet to be seen. Either way, Cleary will have been working with Brooks and how he wants him to direct the team.
To give Brooks the opportunity to succeed will be the Tigers forward pack. For years the Tigers have lacked size. This year the Tigers have the acquired former Warriors teammates Ben Matulino and Russell Packer (via St George). Along with existing players Alex Twal and Mathew Eisenhuth, that gives the Tigers size and will lay the platform for Brooks.
Not often seen enough from Brooks is the ability to play freely and take the line on with his clever passing game. We have seen glimpses and saw it in his sensational man of the match debut against St George Illawarra at the SCG in 2013, playing inside him at five-eighth that day was Benji Marshall. Tigers fans rejoiced they had someone very special to play in the No. 7.
That was five seasons ago and they are now running out of patience.
Although the Tigers inexplicably lost five-eighth Mitchell Moses (Parramatta), former captain Aaron Woods (Canterbury) and star fullback James Tedesco (Roosters), the future still looks bright for the club with excellent recruitment and development.
The majority of the squad are young and Cleary has the opportunity to mould his team with Brooks as the centrepiece of his plans. If he can recapture the form of his NYC cup days, then the Tigers chances of competing for a Top 8 team will be realised. To place all expectations on Brooks may seem like unfair pressure but if you look at the Tigers squad there is no other real contender apart from him that can drive the Tigers aspirations.
Once singled out by the great Andrew Johns in his NYC cup days as one of the best talents he had seen for some time, Brooks has failed to live up to the high expectations good judges have placed on him. In 2018, he now has a well-balanced team, a big forward pack, a stable clubhouse and a talented coach all required to succeed.
I would personally use Benji Marshall at five-eighth to utilise his experience to help in guiding Brooks on-field game management. This would then push Reynolds to the bench to share the hooking role with Pita Godinet/Matt McIlwrick.
2018 will be a good year for Brooks and the Tigers. They will show huge improvement. A Top 8 finish might be just out of reach but not impossible. Brooks is too good a talent to fail.
However, if he fails to live up to his potential 2018, will be this be his last chance as the choice halfback at the club?