The Gold Coast Titans' 14th-placed finish in 2018 needs to be balanced against the strong foundation that was built by new coach Garth Brennan, which suggests a return to September football in the near future is not a pipe dream.
The Titans lost nine games by 12 points or less and, like most sides that failed to figure in the finals, were unable to ice games that were there for the taking.
The mental lapses that marred several of those performances were not surprising given that the Titans fielded, along with the Panthers, the most inexperienced side in the NRL in 2018 with an average of just 79 NRL caps per player.
It was the introduction of a couple of rising stars – 19-year-old forward Fotuaika Moeaki and 20-year-old half/fullback AJ Brimson – which signalled the arrival of two rare talents and the direction Brennan wants to take his squad.
Brennan had a tough initiation to the role when his million-dollar man Jarryd Hayne left the club before the start of pre-season training.
The Titans were also nomads in the opening seven rounds of the competition due to the Commonwealth Games being held on the Gold Coast, which led to them playing just one of the first seven games at CBUS Stadium. Two of their 'home' games were played at Toowoomba and Gladstone, a scenario which was not conducive to building any momentum at home early in the season.
Titans: 2018 season by the numbers
The Titans also had mixed returns from the buys they did make with Leilani Latu and Bryce Cartwright disappointments but Michael Gordon and Mitch Rein both having strong seasons.
Their key 2019 new recruits – Tyrone Peachey, Ryley Jacks, Shannon Boyd and Brian Kelly – will give the Titans depth and attacking punch in key areas.
"We didn't finish near where we wanted to be, but it was a year of laying some very strong foundations," Brennan told NRL.com when reflecting on the 2018 season.
"Right from the outset I said I want to have a team predominantly made up of locals and that takes time. That is why I brought blokes like AJ and Moe into the team, and that may or may not have been before they were ready, but I was willing to take a few hits if it meant they were going to be better for it.
"I would have liked to have won more games, don't get me wrong, but if we had won just one more we would have finished up in 11th above Newcastle and people would have said that was a good season after we started wooden spoon favourites.
"Being on the road for a long time at the start was tough and there was an early disruption with the Jarryd thing, but we do not use that as an excuse. Bryce and Latu probably didn't aim up like we would have hoped but we picked up Michael Gordon and Mitch Rein and I thought they were standouts."
Home and away record
4-8 at home, 4-8 away
In the club's best regular season performance back in 2009, when they finished third, the Titans won 11 of their 12 home games. That benchmark is high but reflective of what the club at its best is capable of. Opponents do not fear a trip to the Gold Coast and the Titans will need that to change if they are to play regular finals football. Their four wins and eight losses at home in 2018, a win/loss record replicated on the road, was never going to be good enough to play finals football but it could so easily have been eight and four or better.
"In all the games at home, apart from the (34-0) loss to the Broncos, we were more than competitive in and in the fight," Brennan said.
"We got beaten by the Sharks by one point, the Panthers in golden point and losses to the Storm (10-8), Cowboys (30-26) and Rabbitohs (18-16) were close. We've just got to turn those narrow losses into wins and then we are talking about semi-final football after that."
Leading try scorer
Winger Anthony Don topped the try scoring list for the Titans for the fourth season out of five with 15 to maintain his reputation as one of the club's most valuable assets. It is a remarkable achievement for the former Grafton Ghost who did not make his NRL debut until the age of 25. Don, who is signed for the next two seasons, now sits just one try behind David Mead's club record of 67 tries.
"Don is not a Ferrari, more like your Holden Commodore. He is Mr Reliable," Brennan said.
"You know he is always going to turn up and do his job, and he's a really good finisher. You just know that when Don is around, he's safe."
Maroons forward Jai Arrow topped the post contact metres per game for the Titans with 54.9m on average across 21 matches, which put him in ninth position overall in the NRL. Titans centre Konrad Hurrell was second on the Titans list with 48.3m through 19 matches. Cowboys powerhouse Jason Taumalolo led all NRL players with 75.8m per game.
Overall the Titans were 14th in the NRL for average post contact metres per game with 469m, behind the Roosters who topped that statistic on 530m.
It is an area Brennan expects to improve in 2019 due to several shrewd buys.
"We've brought in guys like Shannon Boyd, Tyrone Peachey and Brian Kelly who are predominantly tackle breakers so I think we will be better in that area for it," Brennan said.
"Jarrod Wallace is in a lot better shape than he was at this time last year and I think that will help him out as well."
Try scoring – attacking channels
The Titans scored 40% of their 78 season tries down the left or centre left channel, narrowly ahead of the 38% of their tally down the right or centre right. Left winger Phillip Sami scored 14 tries for the season while the team's third and fifth highest try scorers – AJ Brimson (7) and Dale Copley (5) – scored the majority of their tries down the left side. The Titans' right side features Ash Taylor, who led the club for try assists with 17, while Don is a right winger and the Titans had joy going towards his flank. Brennan said the improvement in the left side attack as the season went on was due to the emergence of Brimson as a genuine threat as a ball runner.
"Ash demands the ball more than anybody and a lot of the responsibility was put on his shoulders this year but next season AJ will be better for the 12 months under his belt, we've got Tyrone Roberts back who has worked well with Ash in the past and Ryley Jacks is coming out of a good system at the Storm," Brennan said.
"They are all options that will take a bit of pressure off Ash and see us play more on both sides of the field."
Tries conceded – defending channels
The Titans conceded 97 tries for the season with 26.8% of those in the centre channel and 21% in the centre left channel. The centre right channel on the other hand was responsible for letting in 10 tries all year, just 10.3% of the total.
"We had a lot of chop and change on the left hand side in the halves but on the right side we had Ash Taylor and Kevin Proctor for a just about every game so we had a lot of stability on that right edge," Brennan said.
Tries conceded from penalties
For not the first time in his career captain Ryan James was the most penalised Titan in 2018, giving away 25 penalties for the year. He was given a run for his money by fellow prop Jarrod Wallace with 24. The problem for the Titans when it comes to penalties is that they have a lot of trouble defending the next set of six after conceding one. The Titans conceded 42 tries for the year in the set of six after giving away a penalty, the equal worst in the NRL with the Eels.
"If you aren't starving the opposition of the football eventually they are going to wear you down and score points so we have to be better with our discipline to not give away as many penalties, and when we do we need to have that mental toughness and resilience to defend it," Brennan said.
Metres gained from offloads
The Titans made the third highest number of metres after an offload in the NRL in 2018 with 9.1m per offload, behind the Raiders (9.5m) and the Broncos (9.2m). Overall they finished 10th for the season in metres gained from offloads for the year with 1432.4m at 59.7m per game. Winger Phillip Sami was the best at making metres after receiving an offload with 178.1m at 16.2m per offload. The most metres were made by the Titans for the season following Jai Arrow offloads, with 293.5m. While the Titans had joy when they did offload, Brennan said making the most of that facet of play was a balancing act.
"We like to entertain and move the ball around but what hurt us was that we were one of the worst teams for completions in the NRL which is something we have to improve on," he said.
"We don't want to be a boring side but we have to find the happy medium because there is a difference between being a boring team and loses all the time as well. We have to be smarter with our offloads and making sure we do them at the right time."
The Titans' aspiration to be an attractive side to watch was also revealed by the statistic relating to shifting the ball (with passes that cover 30% or more across the field) where they were ranked second (on 23.8%) in the NRL.
Titans goal kickers Ash Taylor and Michael Gordon landed 78.2% of their try conversion attempts, ahead of the NRL average of 73.6% and the top four average of 71.5%. Taylor missed two of his 17 conversion attempts. Gordon landed 14 of his 15 penalty goal attempts at an average of 93.3%, just ahead of the NRL average of 92.2%.
Titans captain Ryan James topped the NRL with the most average decoy runs per game for the season with 8.7. James was also fourth on the Titans try scoring list for the season with six four-pointers, perhaps an indication that when he does get the ball close to the line the opposition is not expecting it.
"What that shows is the selfless player that Ryan James is. He is running the decoy for someone else who is getting the carry and all the glory," Brennan said.
"Coaches look at blokes that do the work off the ball and help their mate out and that is something that Dark (James) does so well and why he is our captain, because he does those selfless acts."
The Titans were reasonably effective with their decoy runs, making the ninth most in the NRL with 49.7 per game and the equal ninth most line breaks per game with 3.9. South Sydney topped both of those statistics with 61.8 decoys per game and 5.2 line breaks per match.
When not in possession of the football, the Titans are ranked number one in the NRL for slowing the opposition's play-the-ball speed with an average of 3.56 seconds.
"That is something we work very hard on, within the rules, because if you are not slowing the opposition down they are going to make easy metres and eventually break your line," Brennan said.