Gold Coast Titans Ryan James

The Gold Coast Blueprint: How the Titans Can Establish Themselves in the NRL Hierarchy

They may still feel like the newbies of the competition, but with 10 years of experience in the top flight, the Titans have now graduated to a fully-fledged NRL franchise.

As the club grows, so do expectations: On the verge of finally finding an identity as a club, the Titans must begin building towards a sustainable and successful future. Running a club is a business, but the focal point in constructing a successful enterprise should be the on-field product — everything else will take care of itself. The clock is now ticking on the Gold Coast brass to put together a roster that will compete for a premiership.

Whilst they’ve struggled to assert themselves as a genuine contender in their brief history, and currently sit down the lower end of the pecking order, their best times appear to be right around the corner. The next step is fortifying what they’ve built in the first decade of existence and allowing it to blossom into the club’s first real success.

The obvious starting point is where we find the Titans in 2018. Classifying this season, and their current roster, is difficult depending on the context.

If we analyse their raw results, this season has been below-par. On track for a 12th placed finish with the 10th best attack and 3rd worst defence, there hasn’t been much to get excited about. In patches they’ve looked like a dangerous attack outfit, topping 20 points on eight occasions. This has been their only path to victory, accounting for all seven of their wins. They’ve even shown an intriguing ability to go on with the job, and in six of those games going on to post 30 or more points, and comfortably win each of those outings.

However, they’ve struggled mightily against the league’s best teams — only one of those aforementioned performances came against a finals team, and they haven’t posted a single win against a team in the top 6 all year. They’ve struggled in games where their free-flowing attack is restricted, and lost eight of nine games when held under 16 points. Being unable to depend on defence to grind out wins or compete with the league’s best are hallmarks of bad teams. They’ve been resilient, only suffering one losing streak longer than two games, but they haven’t been particularly impressive.

In the context of expectations, they’ve been about as good as anticipated— a notch above the cellar dweller teams but incapable of putting forth a challenge for a playoff spot.

But if we take the surrounding context that is too often ignored — the Titan’s entire history in the NRL — how we find them in the present state isn’t as hopeless as it might appear. On the contrary, there should be genuine optimism and intrigue over what their next chapter entails.

Getting off the Ground

The NRL is unforgivingly competitive every year, and thus introducing a new franchise and expecting them to succeed in the short-term is a huge ask. Without a deep pool of juniors to nurture and select from, establishing a roster is difficult, and will be heavily reliant on transfers. Of course, that requires sufficient funds, which come reliably by being successful — thus begins the dreaded circle of instability: Clubs need money to be successful, but need success to get money. It’s easy to get caught up over-chasing one or the other, and ultimately find yourself treading water for longer than ideal. This best explains the Titans’ search for an identity so far.

That isn’t to criticise the Titans, but the excuse of being a new team is slowly eroding. It also is the best jumping off point for where the plan should head from here.

To overcome their fluctuating tendencies, they need to establish the core of their team going forward, which is the most efficient way to discover, and simultaneously develop a winning identity. The only memorable Titans team so far was their early roster underpinned by early signings Scott Prince, Preston Campbell, Luke Bailey and Matt Rogers. It gave them an optimistic starting point, but essentially no sustainability or foundation considering that each player was on the verge of the twilight of their careers. Those days feel like a distant memory; they have nothing to show for the early success.

Since then, it feels like they’ve been treading water trying to stay afloat. The next best Titans’ lineup — and maybe the one most indicative of the type of team they’ve been — was the one that brought them their last post-season visit in 2016. That rat-tag group that was widely-tipped to be the worst team in the competition and ended up a ‘more than the sum of it’s parts’ masterpiece forged with an undying effort to fight for every last second. They caught teams off-guard, hustled on every possession and managed to scrape in to the playoffs by securing the final position on solidarity and pure will.

Unfortunately, the direction since then has been more of that unfocused fluctuation. Some of it can be chalked up to the ‘home-run swing’ at bringing Jarryd Hayne into the fold — choking up 1.2 million of the salary cap for a player who produced nowhere near his value immediately lowered the ceiling and slammed any slight title window closed. It was a reasonable gamble consider his past history, and could be considered a victory just by the amount of attention it brought the club. It’s arguable that team was nowhere near winning the title anyway, so the gamble on Hayne didn’t come at too much of an opportunity cost.

However, it’s symptomatic of the wrong way to go about building a franchise for long-term success — poaching star talent. The foundation of a successful team requires multiple elite players that grow together, and then adding supplementary pieces that put you over the top. The Titans swung and missed at recruiting, and have been forced into course correcting for the better.

Investing in Patience

In the increasingly cold world of sports, keeping a team together for an extended run is becoming more rare. Despite this, we continue to see the value of continuity in constructing and maintaining success; squads that stay together for multiple seasons tend to rise up the ladder. After failing to recruit top-tier talent, The Titans resorted to taking flyers on young talent and hoped to develop them to the level of player they were chasing.

Whether it was intentional or not, it has restructured the future for the better. Undoubtedly, this method gives them by far the best shot at challenging for a title — it just requires patience.

Committing to overhauling the roster with youth doesn’t need to be mirrored in the coaching box. After moving on from Neil Henry, the decision to hire first-time head-coach Garth Brennan was a high-risk move. A fresh set of ideas and perspectives can reinvigorate a stagnant playing group and alter the trajectory of a club’s future — take Anthony Siebold’s impact at South Sydney as Exhibit A.

But stepping into an already established and previously successful team is, whilst daunting, another situation altogether. Brennan, without any experience as the commander, will be tasked with building the team from the ground up. This is what makes it such a huge gamble: If Brennan is the right man for the job, he has the opportunity to have his fingerprints over each decision and insert his philosophy into the substructure of the club. If we project 3-5 years ahead, he could be the mastermind that brought the Titans into relevance, and be overseeing a roster that is tailored to his vision.

If he isn’t the right man for the job, we will be having the same conversation about the Titans at the end of his reign. Treading water for another half-decade is obviously a dangerous outcome to flirt with, and would see the club in an exponentially worse position than it is right now.

The jury is still out: The general rule of thumb in evaluating coaches is to give them the entirety of their contract length to realise their full plan. It means that only internally will they have a sense of how suitable Brennan is for the job right now; in terms of output and results so far, his approval rating hasn’t swung one way or another. He hasn’t made a stylistic or tactical impact that you would’ve like to see, but the roster he is working with might not be capable of these strides just yet. We’ll have a much better feel early in year 2.

Whilst expectations are generous, improvement is still mandatory — the Titans have to be in or around the playoff race in 2019. To make the necessary jump next year, they have a lot of improving to do. The primary steps have already been put in place: the Titans will reap the aforementioned benefits of roster continuity, which will help bring out the best in what they have on the roster, and assist Brennan on uncovering what the team needs to level up.

The benefit associated with years of flying under the radar — if there is a genuine silver lining — is the opportunity to develop the core of the roster without mounting pressure and unnecessary spotlight. Due to this, the building blocks for this team have been well established moving forward.

The prized asset is undoubtedly halfback Ashley Taylor. The rising playmaker’s progress has been hard to assess: On one hand, his foundational talent is obvious. He’s already an elite-level playmaker capable of commanding an effective attack. The skills Taylor’s game is defined by — directing an offence, creating and assisting for others and pinpoint kicking — are pillars that premiership teams are built around.

Conversely, it does feel like he has somewhat plateaued. In terms of both his output and potential, Taylor hasn’t shown as much growth as what may have been expected. There isn’t much he’s doing that he hadn’t already shown, and it’s dampened consensus opinion around his ceiling. As recently as last year, Taylor was considered the best prospect in the game; a statement that no longer rings true.

There’s two reasons for this. Firstly, he’s played two of his first three years on downright bad teams. Playing behind a losing pack will make even the greatest halfbacks look mediocre. Being fair, what Taylor has managed to achieve (Rookie of the Year in 2016; first in try assists in 2017 and currently first in 2018) is a testament to his ability. Fans of the Titans should still be excited by how he might fare when surrounded with elite talent.

Furthermore, playmakers generally don’t hit their peak or play their best footy until their late 20’s. And whilst the likes of Ponga, Cleary, Trbojevic and Munster have surpassed him, Taylor still has bankable top-5 superstar potential. That should be encouraging for the Titans, assuming they are able to hold onto him for that long. He is the type of player you build a franchise around. The Gold Coast should anticipate Taylor being the centrepiece of this squad when it reaches its peak.

The rest of the current core is made up of their best players: Jarrod Wallace, Kevin Proctor, Ryan James, Nathan Peats and Jai Arrow.

There are a few things that stand out with this group: They’re all forwards, which is both a positive and negative depending on how you look at it. You need an elite pack to have any hope in this league, so that’s a good place to start. But you want to build a balanced roster and loading up on forwards early can throw off that balance and tie up your salary cap in players with overlapping strengths. They will help provide Taylor with a solid platform to work off, but he’ll need more dangerous weapons in the backline; they need to find some foundational talent in the backline.

Also, the collective age: for a team on the rise, it’s slightly alarming that outside of Taylor, only one of their core players — Jai Arrow, 23 — is under the age of 27 and definitely has his best years ahead of him. The ideal team building strategy is when your best players are all on the same timeline, and this runs the risk of the headlining talent being past their primes when the team’s ready to compete. It puts an artificial used-by date on the roster — they’ll have to be good within the next two years to extract full value out of these guys. That’s not out of the question, but still adds pressure.

With that in mind, there is still a ton of positives here. Leading that conversation is compatibility of these players strengths. The Gold Coast should be using this as the guiding force to conceptualise the style that will define them moving forward.

Other members of the current squad should also hold their places: the ever-reliable Anthony Don is penciled in on one wing, and Phillip Sami — the club’s top try scorer this season — has emerged as the standout option on the other. Michael Gordon can either serve as a stopgap fullback or provide outside back depth. Alex Brimson has impressed through his first season and has some intriguing upside as a five-eighth or fullback.

Such a collection of talent gives them a strong starting point to begin shaping a contending team. With this core, it would be wise to move in the direction of building, stylistically, what is best described as an Ultra-version of recent Canberra Raiders’ squads.

Whilst the inconsistency of the Raiders might scare some off heading in this direction, remember: they were an Edrick Lee knock-on away from qualifying for a Grand Final. They’ve also been a top four offensive team every year since 2014, including first in both 2014 and 2018.

The Titans can extrapolate on their strong points with a hulking forward pack driving an unstoppable offensive unit with strike across the park, whilst covering the weak points. Canberra’s biggest flaws — lack of control, poor decision-making in critical moments, ill-discipline — has arguably been due to their lack of a star playmaker. The Titans, theoretically, have that covered with Taylor. Turning their biggest weakness into a strength should make their ceiling infinitely higher than the Raiders. Defensively they have a long way to go, but there is proven success here, and now we have a path to contention.

Stepping towards Contention

The headline signings that the Titans have made for next season fit right in with this plan. The reaction to the signings of Panthers utility extraordinaire Tyrone Peachy and hulking Canberra prop Shannon Boyd has been interesting to say the least. They’ve addressed talent in the right areas, targeted players who have shown ability to be elite at their position and fit in well with the already established members on the roster. In that sense, these are solid moves to continue building.

The counterpoint is that neither player screams consistency, and considering the money required to poach them, they can’t afford to fail.

For the Titans to proceed on an upward trajectory, these new recruits have to hit the ground running. This means they have to become key members of the lineup: Peachey has to become either a member of their spine, or an elite strike weapon on the edge. Whilst his versatile skillset makes it tempting to use him in different spots or as an impact player off the bench, he is simply too good to not lock down a permanent spot. He could slot in a fullback, five-eighth or centre and presents a talent upgrade at each spot. Shannon Boyd has to cement himself as a starting prop and have a career-best year, no excuses.

If the additions go according to plan, expect the Titans to jump into the conversation for the playoffs as soon as next season. For that to happen, and to both maximise the roster and improve on their results, they’ll need to alter the way they play: They’ve managed to cobble together a decent attack, but the underlying structures and strategies aren’t exactly ideal or sustainable. To begin crafting something legitimate, they’ll have to make some significant changes. First is changing the point of attack.

At the moment, everything runs through Taylor. He averages the third most touches in the league at 53.9 per game, and is tasked with essentially all of the team’s playmaking. Whilst this soaks all the value out of him — necessary with few other dependable options — it over-stretches him and takes him away from the areas where he can be most effective, picking apart an already retreating defensive line. To counteract this, the Titan’s middle third has to generate more momentum than they currently do. To assist in pushing the attack forward, hooker Nathan Peats will have to do more from acting-half.

Currently, Peats’ tendency is to play off the deck and let Taylor dictate the offence. This is intentional, but not ideal: Cutting down on the amount of simple relay-work Taylor does from first-receiver — and having Peats instead direct the forwards straight from dummy half — will help increase the amount of touches Taylor gets in space and hopefully in second-phase situations. Slide Peachey, one of the undisputed best at capitalising on broken defensive lines, in outside of Taylor and you start to form a formidable offence. Having hovered around the 6-10 rank in attack, this is a slight tweak that will unlock the Titans and position them to crack the elite.

This gives them a dependable skill to begin forming an identity around. Of course, they’ve got plenty of other areas they’ll need to fix up before they can strive for the Top 8. They need to learn to control tempo, often playing fast in attempt to mask flaws and hang in against superior opposition. With a young team this can be effective when it works, but without a hint of defensive structure, can leave them vulnerable, and goes off the rails fast. Giving up points is a by-product of this style: in games where they conceded 24 points or more, they only won two — against the Knights and Raiders, who are the other teams guilty of this. If they can reel this in, it will at least cut down the opportunities for oppositions to target their defensive weaknesses.

The aim for 2019 should be similar to the Knights’ mission statement for this year: Utilise the season as a chance to discover the essence of what makes this team special, cultivate this and begin to cut down on the deficiencies that were holding you back. Whilst they won’t want to slide down the ladder, results aren’t everything; rather, they need to get processes right and begin to build for the next few years. If the Titans can map out an overarching philosophy, improve their offensive consistency and learn to defend — areas in which they struggle at the moment — by the end of 2019, they’ll be in a position to climb the hierarchy.

Long term, they’ll need to find a partner for Taylor in the halves. Kane Elgey was thought to be the option, but his remarkable fall from grace will see him depart the club next season. Former Titan Tyrone Roberts will return to the club next season and provide a reliable option to sure up the spot immediately, but doesn’t offer the high-upside that you’d prefer. Brimson has shown promise, but still has a lot of growing to do and might project more as a fullback moving forward. Talk of chasing Melbourne’s Ryley Jacks is encouraging, his Blake Green-esque playing style would be an ideal fit. Overall, their recruitment moves, such as passing on Corey Norman, have suggested that they understand what will fit their roster going forward.

Importantly, the Titans need to continue investing in young guys in the hope that someone works out. They’ve had a few hits: Brimson, Sami, Morgan Boyle and Keegan Hipgrave have all showed signs of becoming high-level contributors. Continuing to stockpile depth in all positions is only positive, creating injury insurance and maintaining competition for spots. There’s hope for the likes of Fotuaika, Mathews, Stockwell, Simpkins and Latu, who will all continue to compete for positions and add quality to the bottom end of the roster. Injuries have played a huge part in their last three seasons: Of course its nearly impossible to plan for such events, but their recent squads would be fairly described as top-heavy. Clubs need dependable fill-ins deep into the roster — it’s the only way to crack the top 4. As long as they continue to recruit wisely and maintain their roster, their results should only improve.

The Gold Coast franchise experiment has been a fascinating one thus far. They’ve had brief periods of winning and managed to build a legitimate fanbase, but genuine success has eluded them. Whilst the current state of the team may not suggest they’re on the precipice of becoming the next dynasty, if they continue to add talent around their core and hone their style to forge a dependable identity, their best days are absolutely ahead of them. When the Titans are challenging for a top four spot within the next three years, don’t be surprised.

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