Titans injury curse could be an old Lang sign

When John Lang coached Penrith to the NRL premiership in 2003, one of the first things he did after the fulltime siren on grand final day was thank his predecessor as Panthers coach, Royce Simmons.

Simmons is a Panthers legend, but he was shown the door at the end of the 2001 season after Penrith finished dead last in a dismal season marred by a horror injury toll that saw the Panthers use an astronomical 34 players across their 26 games.

Lang took over in 2002, beginning a Panthers revival that saw them finish 12th in a 15-team competition in his first season in charge, before Penrith shocked everyone by finishing on top of the ladder in 2003 and on top of the world when they beat the Roosters 18-6 in the grand final.

As the Panthers celebrated going from the wooden spoon to the premiership in just two seasons, Lang used his post-match press conference to put Penrith’s “overnight success” into context with typical Lang humility.

“I want to pay tribute to Royce Simmons,” he said. “Royce started to put this side together and he's a bit like me at the Sharks, he ran out of time.

“He recognised the talent of a lot of young players.

“He brought Luke Priddis to the club and Joe Galuvao.

“If you are sitting at home watching on tele, Roycie, thanks a lot, mate.”

While Simmons had nothing to show for his final season in charge of the club that he loved other than a wooden spoon and a pink slip, the former Test hooker was building the foundations for Penrith’s premiership season.

While injury clouds rained on Penrith’s 2001 season, the silver lining was that by using 34 players in desperation just to get a team on the field, the Panthers suddenly had a massive pool of players with first grade experience to draw on for 2002 and 2003.

Out of necessity, some of Penrith’s younger players had to develop faster than anticipated, getting a taste of the NRL much earlier than they had expected.

By the time 2003 rolled around, the Panthers had tremendous depth with experienced, battle-hardened young players ready to give everything they had.

And Lang, to his enormous credit, never forgot it.

The parallels between the Panthers of 2001 and Gold Coast Titans of 2019 are easy to spot.

Like the Panthers, the Titans will finish the season with the wooden spoon, and have a new coach coming in with Justin Holbrook – who, ironically played eight games for Penrith in that 2001 season – joining the Gold Coast in November.

And just like the Panthers, the Titans have been battered on the injury front this season – using a total of 30 different players across 23 games this season leading into the final game of the year against the Dragons on Saturday.

The Titans began the season with three of their four first-choice spine players missing with injury.

Inspirational captain Ryan James only lasted until Round 6 before his year was ended with a knee injury, Jai Arrow missed two months with a syndesmosis injury, and Shannon Boyd missed a large chunk of the year with concussion and shoulder issues.

Keegan Hipgrave’s year finished at Round 13, Dale Copley had a good year ruined by a hamstring injury, while Tyrone Roberts has not been on the field since Round 19.

This week, Moeaki Fotuaika finally succumbed to ankle and knee injuries after playing on with a damaged wrist for most of the season.

As hard as it is for Titans fans to see right now, as it was for Panthers fans at the end of 2001, the massive injury toll has handed a heavy dose of first-grade experience to a lot of young players, who will go into next season as established and senior members of the playing group.

Jai Whitbread is the perfect example of being an unexpected beneficiary of the Titans’ tough season.

Despite being down the pecking order among Titans forwards in the pre-season, injuries and Whitbread’s ability to take his opportunities has seen him become a mainstay of the Gold Coast pack in 2019, chalking up 18 NRL games in the middle third.

Whitbread said there was no doubt that adjusting to the rigours of the NRL after being thrown in the deep end this season would help him and the other Titans rookies hit the ground running in 2020.

“I got a bit lucky with injury and that, but I have been extremely grateful for the opportunities that I have got and I have loved every minute of it,” Whitbread said.

“I just tried to work hard, and if I was pushed back to (Queensland) Cup football, then I would just try to continue working hard.

“Luckily enough, I got a few more games than expected. Like I said, I am extremely grateful. I will continue to work hard, because there are no guarantees next year.

“It helps me build for the season to come. Just playing football against men in the Cup system last year built me for this year, and I am hoping that this year will be another building block for me to further my game.”