After successfully reinvigorating his forward pack with young talent in 2021, Titans coach Justin Holbrook is looking to do the same with his playmakers this season. But, will they be able to return the team to the finals or will they falter under the pressure of playing first grade?
Over the course of last season, the Titans forward pack became a feared prospect for not only what they could do currently, but what they threatened to do in the future.
With the likes of David Fifita, Moeaki Fotuaika, Jaimin Jolliffe, Beau Fermor and new skipper Tino Fa’asuamaleaui all under 25 years old, they will all continue to improve into the future.
Yet despite their youth Holbrook stuck with his experienced veterans to control the game through the middle of the ground, especially towards the end of the season.
Tyrone Peachy, Jamal Fogarty, and Mitch Rein played five-eighth, halfback, and hooker respectively as the team pushed for a finals berth.
However, none of that trio will feature in this year’s squad forcing Holbrook to endorse their much younger counterparts.
Jayden Campbell will play fullback, AJ Brimson will move to five-eighth, 20-year-old Toby Sexton assumes the responsibility of the halfback position while Erin Clark will take on first choice dummy-half duties.
Campbell was super impressive in the Titans’ run home last season filling in for the injured Brimson, he showed off his electric speed and elusiveness as he burst through the smallest gaps in the defence.
Clark assumes the role of Hooker after a 19-game season in 2021 where he both started and came off the bench to great effect. Expect the 24-year-old to receive some help off the bench with explosivity a key to his game.
However, it is the halves combination of Brimson and Sexton that has everyone talking.
Brimson makes the switch back into the halves after enjoying some success there as a junior, but the pressure will be on having not played in the position at NRL level.
After former skipper Jamal Fogarty’s release to the Canberra Raiders for the 2022 season and beyond the pressure will be on Sexton from the get-go, with no clear replacement should the 20-year-old struggle to find his feet in the key position.
However, he is using the coach’s endorsement as a positive and not letting himself get wrapped up in whether he is up to the task.
“The coaching staff have obviously put a lot of confidence in me, and I use that as a strength not necessarily like if I don’t perform I won’t be playing, it’s only a good thing,” he said at a press conference on Wednesday.
“Now all I have to do is do my job in the team and hopefully that goes a long way into the results we want.”
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It isn’t just Sexton that Holbrook has instilled his confidence in for 2022, he also backed in Brimson to be the team’s long-term five-eighth.
Despite playing his whole NRL career at fullback, the emergence of Campbell has forced him back into the halves.
Brimson’s experience at fullback will only make him a more dangerous five-eighth at NRL level, with his speed with ball in hand able to draw defenders in, creating space for the Titans equally dangerous outside backs.
Brimson’s ability to create with his run and passing will take the pressure off Sexton, allowing him to control the game with his kicking which was a feature of his game at QLD Cup level averaging 199.9 kicking metres.
With an eye to a long-term partnership, the pair have started to build their relationship off the back of their bond off the field.
“We’re pretty good mates, we spend a lot of time together off the field which has definelty helped our initial combination and on the field, it has been so easy,” he said.
“Between us two and JC (Campbell) out the back we’ve all combined really nicely and we’re all looking forward to playing with each other.”
However, a pairings synergy doesn’t automatically guarantee success.
The halfback position is arguably the most important in the NRL, with the best in the business able to dictate field position at will, and give their team the best chance to score.
It is also what they do without the ball that is just as important.
A halfback’s ability to guide his team with his voice is imperative, they help set up they dictate where the ball is on the field to help set up their fifth tackle options which often falls on them to execute.
Fogarty’s leadership ability earnt him the captaincy last season, leaving big shoes for Sexton to fill.
However, the 20-year-old believes that is one of the strengths of his game and a meeting with his teammates instilled the confidence in him to use his voice and be a leader despite his lack of first grade experience.
“We do a lot of things as a group around our cultural stuff, and a big thing was me was talking more,” he said.
“I’m definitely taking a lot of confidence from that.
“Being a halfback, you have to be a good communicator and I know that is one of my biggest attributes in myself and if I can do that, I’m definelty contributing to the team in a positive way.
“When you look at the likes of JC and AJ who are both very natural footy players, they’re not massive communicators so if they’re going to go well, I have to be the main communicator and get the side around the park.”
Physically, Sexton has also improved adding weight that will hopefully allow his body to deal with the rigours of a long season.
“It’s been a long preseason and I have put in a lot of work, and I feel like I have made some good headway in my game,” he said.
“I have done as much as I can in preseason to prepare myself for the season ahead, I’ve put on three kilos, so physically I feel a lot better and ready for it.”
Working in the Titans favour is the recent success of teenagers in the NRL. Former schoolboy teammates of Sexton, Sam Walker, and Reece Walsh, enjoyed breakout seasons in 2021 for the Sydney Roosters and New Zealand Warriors respectively.
While the Titans did lose some experience, 10 of the 17 players from last year’s elimination final loss are 25 and under and nestled between 30-100 games experience, placing them at the beginning of the prime of their careers.
With recent changes made to speed up the game, it now undoubtedly favours the youngsters who possess the pace and skill over the elder statesmen such as Cameron Smith and Jonathon Thurston who could control the tempo of the game to suit their aging bodies.
This tempo shift has allowed for the more exciting players to dictate terms and take the reins of their teams, a fact that Sexton will be hoping will hold true for him.
“I think the game has turned into a young man’s game with the speed of the game and the way its adapting,” he said.
“I think a lot of young people coming through are having a lot of success and I’m hoping to replicate that.”
While no one can know just how the Titans young brigade will go in 2022, their fans will be hoping Holbrook has pulled the right lever and this team can finally deliver some success to the Gold Coast.
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