Smart Signings: Whoever Des Hasler gets, it’s the collective that will make the difference at the Titans

With the Finals over and the November 1 contract deadline passed, we can officially declare the NRL’s silly season open.

Into the morass of gossip and conjecture, we will bring sanity, with the relaunch of Smart Signings, our dissection of where clubs are weak, what they need to improve and where they might find it. Expect stats, profiles and insights, with options that are available and realistic. Don’t expect rumours.

Of all the teams in the NRL, the Gold Coast Titans are perhaps the most difficult to predict in terms of their recruitment.

They have a new coach, for one, which limits what you can say about a team before they take to the field. 

Nobody knows what Des Hasler’s version of this team is really going to be like, and the Gold Coast as a knack of making coaches with previously good records look bad anyway. It’s the graveyard of defences.

They also have very little salary cap to play with, having invested a lot of money into not a lot of positions late in the year with long-term contracts for Tino Fa’asuamaleaui and David Fifita.

The Titans have no more Top 30 spot up for grabs in 2024, having elevated Tino’ brother Iszac plus still-to-debut youngsters Ryan Foran and Josiah Pahulu, and no development deal slots either. 

It’s one in, one out for them already going into next year and even for 2025, they’re pretty well set. 

They have three recognised, week-to-week first graders in their final year and you suspect they’ll likely be happy to let all of them go anyway. 

Kieran Foran and Isaac Liu are 33 and 32 respectively, the two oldest players in the squad by a full five years, and the other is Joe Stimson, who is far from irreplaceable and, coincidentally, the third oldest player on the list. 

So they’ve got no cash, little space and a new coach. Good luck, Smart Signings.

It doesn’t get any easier when we delve into the data. There’s nothing smart at all about diagnosing where the problems are on the Gold Coast, because anyone who has seen them play knows it immediately. They can’t tackle.

The defensive issues have never really gone away despite multiple coaches, and the problem is a collective, systemic one, not something that could simply be improved by getting better tacklers.

The whole point of bringing a guy like Hasler in is to sort this once and for all, and if he can make the team even marginally better without the ball, the chances are that they’ll have plenty enough strike to win enough matches with it.

They lose Foran, but have AJ Brimson and Jayden Campbell to play 1 and 6 (order not determined) plus Thomas Weaver, who they think is the best thing since sliced bread and has to play, and now, otherwise he’ll walk given it’s his final contract year.

Liu and Stimson were bench forwards in 2023 and one imagines that any of the lesser Haas and Fa’asuamaleaui brothers will step in, or any of their long list of young forwards.

The biggest question will be around the composition of the 29 they already have. 

One of Brimson and Campbell has to play fullback, which means the other one has to go somewhere else, but can’t really be left out or wasted on the bench. Keano Kini, deemed good enough for a Kiwis squad that just beat Australia, presumably fits in somewhere too.

They let Toby Sexton go so that Tanah Boyd could play, but Weaver is coming through and Foran is still there. That’s five playmakers into three roles.

The pack is fairly settled with Tino and Mo Fotuaika in the middle, Fifita and a returning Beau Fermor out wide and Erin Clark at lock, with Chris Randall and Sam Verrills swapping the hooking role. New arrival Keenan Palasia, Stimson and Liu will fill out the bench.

(Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

In the backs, the wingers will be Alofiana Khan-Pereira and Jojo Fifita, with Philip Sami and Brian Kelly inside them, plus whichever of Brimson and Campbell they settled on. 

There’s not many teams where you can basically name the 17 straight off the bat and who also have depth, as the Titans do, with Jaimin Jolliffe, Klese Haas, Jacob Alick, Iszac Fa’asuamaleaui, Ken Maumolo and Aaron Schoupp all in reserve, plus the aforementioned youngsters Weaver and Kini.

Where the signings could come in is on the ability to trade that depth for improvements. There’s really no need to carry guys like Schoupp, Maumolo, Alick and Jolliffe in reserve when guys like Brian Kelly – who should be a reserve – continue to get first grade minutes.

What the Titans need in edge defence could be solved with better players, at least for the first team, and likely that is where they will look. 

Kelly has been given an extension by Hasler, but has been consistently one of the worst defensive centres around for several years and, at the age of 27 and with 146 NRL appearances behind him, it’s pretty safe to say that he’s not going any better.

His tackle efficiency stands at 78%, outside of the top 40 for players with minutes in the centres last year and he was averaging one try cause per game, which is fairly damaging stuff.

Lucky for the Titans, there are better options out there. As discussed in our Warriors Smart Signings, there are a stack of outside backs in Auckland, one of whom is Rocco Berry, who has an 89% tackle efficiency over a significant sample size.

He’s also right up there for one on one tackles, a key metric for centres, suggesting that he’s making difficult attempts and making them stick. 

Enari Tuala is also off at the end of the year and boasts solid numbers defensively, albeit split more between the centre and the wing, though over the course of his career he has favoured defending a man in far more.

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

If they looked ahead, Isaiah Tass also ranks highly and is off at the end of the year, which could interesting should Souths press ahead with Jack Wighton and Campbell Graham in the centres and one of Tyrone Munro or Josiah Karapani as long-term wingers.

It’s definitely a strength that picking recruitment options for the Titans is so hard. Hasler is walking into a position of strength, really, compared to rebuilding jobs that he’s had to do in the past. 

Even though this team finished 14th last year, there is so much talent within the group and only two of his side are over 27, so you’d expect them to get better almost by default.

His central questions are more to do with positions, as with Campbell and Brimson, and organisation, with the defence, as well as the cultural issues that come from the perception of being a holiday resort with a football team attached.

The problem might be that Justin Holbrook walked in thinking much the same. He left somewhat ignominiously given the nature of his sacking, but somehow also with his reputation intact if not burnished. He was just the latest to struggle on the Gold Coast.

It’ll be like that until someone doesn’t struggle – and no doubt Dessie will back himself to be the first to succeed.

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