Strongman has Tigers excited for charge up NRL ladder

Thomas Mikaele is the strongest man at Wests Tigers.

But as for where he sits in the NRL?

Hard to say.

“Can’t give you any maximum lifts,” the young prop apologises, “because I never do less than five repetitions at a time”.

What The Daily Telegraph can reveal though, is that when Mikaele does those five repetitions, it is with enough metal to keep even Slayer fans happy — think 245kg dead lift, 185kg squat and 150kg bench press.

Better, the 22-year-old Aucklander has also stripped seven kilos from his frame over summer, and now sits at a more streamlined 110kg in preparation for his second NRL season.

All of which not only puts him in any NRL Strongman conversation, but has Tigers types increasingly excited.

Quizzed on the rising star who played 24 games in his debut NRL season, Tigers favourite Chris Lawrence says: “If I had to pick one guy who will stand out this year, it has to be Tom Mikaele.

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Thomas Mikaele is the strongest man at Wests Tigers. Picture: Gregg Porteous/NRL PhotosSource:The Daily Telegraph

“He’s that big, powerful prop every club needs.

“And at Wests Tigers, we haven’t had a lot of that in the past couple of years — that powerful forward who busts the line open.

“But Tom can definitely be that guy for us now.”

A product of the Keebra Park High system, Mikaele captained a stellar 2016 side that included reigning Dally M Rookie Payne Haas, Queensland Origin enforcer David Fifita and promising Gold Coast prop Moeaki Fotuaika.

Already all four have played NRL, two Origin, while Haas also boasts Tests for Australia.

Once, the bookend role was dominated by older heads with flattened noses and cauliflowered ears.

But not anymore.

“No, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there,” Mikaele says when quizzed on the rise and rise of young bookends.

“You look right across the NRL now and it really is the younger guys who are raising the roof up front.

“I know here at the Tigers, Madge (coach Michael Maguire) always says that there’s no age limit on leadership.

“And I definitely want to be a leader here.”

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Thomas Mikaele wants to be a leader for Wests Tigers. Picture: Gregg Porteous/NRL PhotosSource:Supplied

Certainly Lawrence believes it will be the case in 2020.

“What’s impressed me with Tom is the way he’s worked on all aspects of his game,” the back-rower continues.

“There were games last year where, by Tom’s own standards, his fitness let him down. So that’s something he has worked really hard on.

“And when it comes to strength, he’s easily our strongest player.

“Upper body, lower body, it doesn’t matter … Tom basically owns every gym record we have.”

Asked about his efforts in the Tigers Concord gym, Mikaele continues: “I’ve always been naturally strong.

“Although back in high school, it was Moeaki who was our strongest in the gym.

“But I’m just trying to work hard.

“Last year I was getting around at 117kg. It was tough, and at times definitely took a toll on my body, but I definitely feel like I’ve done the work to be better for this year.”

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Who’s in: Billy Walters (Storm), Luciano Leilua (Dragons), Joey Leilua (Raiders), Adam Doueihi (Rabbitohs), Zane Musgrove.

Who’s out: Robbie Farah, Robbie Rochow, Ben Matulino (all retired), Mahe Fonua (Hull FC), Esan Marsters (Cowboys), Ryan Matterson (Eels).

Analysis: Latrell Mitchell was offered $1 million to join this roster. Instead, he took $300,000 less to play elsewhere.

Which says something.

Same deal the fact Wests Tigers have also lost NSW Origin hopeful Ryan Matterson, who was outstanding in 2019.

Yet while the Tigers may lack a true NRL megastar — and have done ever since James Tedesco walked in 2017 — they’ve still recruited astutely for 2020 and could potentially bag themselves the NRL ‘Bargain Buy of the Year’.

Take Canberra centre Joey Leilua, who on his best day sits among the most threatening centres in the game. Resurrected prop Zane Musgrove also looms as a strong signing, having sat out the past year on an assault conviction, while fullback Adam Doueihi and forward Luciano Leilua will also be given more NRL playing time than ever before.

Joey Leilua shapes as a great buy for Wests Tigers. Picture: Michael Bradley/Getty ImagesSource:Getty Images

Off-contract 2020: Oliver Clark, Matt Eisenhuth, Robert Jennings, Chris Lawrence, Benji Marshall, Sam McIntyre, Chris McQueen, Paul Momirovski, Alex Seyfarth, Dylan Smith, Elijah Taylor.

Analysis: Wests Tigers scored a major coup over summer when they snared teenage powerhouse Stefano Utoikamanu from Parramatta. Only days after the signing was announced, NSW Origin coach Brad Fittler confirmed the youngster was — gasp — on his radar for a Blues berth in 2020, despite having yet to make his NRL debut. Elsewhere, the Tigers also remain a chance of landing Melbourne No.9 Harry Grant. At the time of writing, the proposed player loan agreement between Grant and centre Paul Momirovski was again back on the table. The Tigers would be boosted significantly by the signature of Grant.

The burning question: Are Wests Tigers a top eight side?

Forget premierships, the real goal for Wests Tigers this year is to break an NRL finals hoodoo now stretching eight seasons.

Should the side do that, 2020 will undoubtedly be considered a success.

Better, it would give Tigers coach Michael McGuire some more blocks on which to continue rebuilding a club that has previously overspent, shelled out for more coaches than Greyhound, and now continues to experience the worst finals drought in NRL history.

Since 2004, the Tigers have finished ninth six times, including three out of the past four years.

But this year?

Chris Lawrence and Wests Tigers haven’t featured in the NRL finals for eight seasons. Picture: Gregg Porteous/NRL PhotosSource:Super Food Ideas

Well, good luck finding an NRL commentator tipping them to go even that high.

Same deal, bookies.

Still, imagine the headlines if Benji Marshall could make it to finals footy one more time? Or Chris Lawrence, that gutsiest of backrowers playing on as eight plates holds his face together.

Potentially, the other big story out of Concord could be the rise of Tommy Talau, the teenage centre who Marshall likens to no less than reigning Dally M medallist James Tedesco — a man, coincidentally, whose exit from the club continues to cause heartache.

Speaking last year, Marshall said of Talau: “He has the most potential of any kid I’ve seen since James Tedesco”.

Still only 19, and having made his top grade debut last year, this son of New Zealand Test star Willie Talau could potentially be fast-tracked into an NRL regular for 2020.

It’s a big year for: the Wests Tigers pack.

Forget Luke Brooks, Moses Mbye or that ageing Benji Step, if the Tigers are to compete this year then much will depend on young forwards Thomas Mikaele (22), Luke Garner (24) and St George Illawarra recruit Luciano Leilua (23). While Mikaele may only be entering into his second season, the Tigers desperately need him to become that powerhouse prop they’ve lacked for some time. No, the youngster doesn’t need to rise up like great mate Payne Haas. But if the Tigers are to succeed in 2020 — and provide an attacking platform for Brooks, Marshall and co. — much will depend on the whether those young forwards can become genuine NRL heavies.

Alex Twal leads the way up front for Wests Tigers. Picture: Cameron Spencer/Getty ImagesSource:Getty Images

Pre-season hero: Tigers prop Alex Twal. Currently preparing for his fourth NRL season, Twal boasts one of the most effective tackle techniques in the NRL. “But while defence is a real strength for Alex,” Tigers backrower Chris Lawrence explains, “it isn’t something that necessarily comes naturally to him.

“It’s something he works incredibly hard at. And that work ethic, it’s why everyone at this club loves playing alongside Alex Twal … we see how hard the guy is training every single day to make sure everything he does out there alongside you is right.”

SuperCoach types might also be interested to know coach Michael Maguire is planning to increase Twal’s playing minutes this season.

The best player you’ve never heard of: Could a country kid from Scone replace Benji Marshall in the No.6 jersey? Still only 20, Jack Madden is the 2018 Australian Schoolboy who the Tigers recruited from Newcastle after he also finished that same year as the SG Ball leading pointscorer. Given his status as a Development Player, Madden is currently ineligible for NRL selection until Round 17 but will move into the Tigers top squad for 2021.

Jock Madden has been tipped for a bright future. Picture: Nathan Hopkins/NRL PhotosSource:Supplied

Stats that matter: What must Wests Tigers do to make a home of Bankwest Stadium? Already playing out of more joints than the Deltones, the Tigers need to quickly find their groove at that newest ‘home ground’ in Parramatta. Last year, the Tigers lost four of five games at Bankwest, and by an average of 22 points. Given the club will play seven games at the venue in 2020, they need to find a way to win there – and quickly.

Originally published asStrongman has Tigers excited for charge up NRL ladder

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