The Wests Tigers began season 2018 with a bang, surprising 2017 heavyweights the Sydney Roosters and the Melbourne Storm with back-to-back 10-8 victories.
After 6 weeks they had 5 victories, including another tight one over the Storm, and suffered just 1 loss.
Ivan Cleary had united a club plagued by a fractured playing group in the years prior.
Benji Marshall was back to his best, exercising a level of control and maturity never seen from him.
Luke Brooks was in the Origin conversation, with many experts claiming he was finally showing signs of why he was touted as the next Andrew Johns even before he made his first-grade debut.
It was happy days in Tiger Town.
What has transpired since will leave many Tigers’ fans worried? Rounds 7, 8 and 9 saw the Tigers suffer 3 losses in a row, including back-to-back two-point defeats to the Parramatta Eels and Newcastle Knights, followed by a 26-4 drubbing at the hands of the New Zealand Warriors.
After going win, loss, win against the Cowboys, Panthers, and Bulldogs respectively, the Tigers now find themselves on a 3-match losing streak for the second time this season–this time suffering defeats at the hands of the Roosters, the Sharks and the Raiders.
What went right?
After over 15 years of being a club known for its flair and flamboyancy, the Wests Tigers changed their style completely.
They tucked the ball under their arm and ran hard. They stopped spreading the ball inside their red zone. They stopped looking for the easy way out. Most importantly, they learned how to grind out tough wins.
All this occurred under the coaching of Ivan Cleary, and the on-field direction of club legend Benji Marshall.
Marquee front-row signings Russell Packer and Ben Matulino made a massive difference as well. The Tigers were getting on the front foot far more frequently, allowing Marshall more time to control the game.
It wasn’t just the marquee men making a difference though. The inclusion of Corey Thompson at the expense of David Nofoaluma in round 1 had many – myself included – scratching their heads.
He quickly justified his selection by scoring the match-winning try against the Roosters in round 1. He cemented his spot in the team by showing heart, grit and toughness way beyond that of a bloke his size. He is a living, breathing proof of the wonders that a Super League sabbatical can do for NRL players.
Finally, Luke Brooks was showing far more regular glimpses of his potential than he ever has in his career. Both his running and kicking games improved dramatically, likely because of having a cool head like Benji alongside him.
What went wrong?
It was clear from the get-go that the Tigers’ style of football would not be sustainable in the long term. To sum it up, it’s bloody hard to win 10-8 every week.
Against top teams, the Tigers’ attack has severely faltered. This season, they have only scored over 20 points against the Eels, the Knights, the Cowboys and the Sea Eagles, all of which are bottom-8 teams. Against top-8 teams, they have struggled.
This is mostly due to inconsistency in key positions, particularly hooker and fullback. At dummy half, Ivan Cleary has alternated between Matt McIlwrick and Elijah Taylor, neither of whom are top class rakes.
The fullback role has been switched between Tuimoala Lolohea and Corey Thompson. Thompson, for all his grit and determination, is not a good enough ball-player to be a first-choice fullback in the modern game, while Lolohea – a victim of his own versatility – has struggled to nail down a position his entire career, despite his obvious talents.
In the spine, the only constants have been Brooks and Marshall. With Marshall expected to be out until at least round 18, don’t expect consistency to be found anytime soon.
The other major problem for the Tigers has been the absence of star signing Josh Reynolds. Injured in the warm-up for the round 1 clash with the Roosters, Reynolds made his long-awaited debut for the Tigers against Manly in round 6 off the bench, before injuring his shoulder and missing another 4 weeks. He then re-injured his hamstring just 1 game into his comeback from the shoulder injury.
If the Tigers are to make the finals, they will need to be able to do more than just defend their way to victory, as they did against the Roosters and the Storm in the first 2 rounds. The key to this is consistency in the spine.
The remainder of the season
It should be noted that the Tigers are well within reach of a finals berth. They sit in 10th place on 14 points, with a bye and 9 matches left to play. The fat lady isn’t even on stage yet!
The confirmed arrival of former skipper and hooker Robbie Farah and the rumored arrival of Bulldogs’ fullback Moses Mbye will give Tigers’ fans hope as these two positions have arguably given the Tigers the most issues this year.
Farah has been unlucky this year. Stuck behind arguably the form hooker in the NRL Damien Cook at Souths, he has been carving it up for North Sydney in the Intrust Super Premiership. He has also impressed in his two outings in first grade this year.
He may not be what he used to be, but he towers over both McIlwrick and Taylor in terms of dummy half running, passing and kicking. For the right price, he is still a very good player, and will offer a lot to the Tigers’ spluttering attack.
On a personal note, despite not being a Tigers fan myself, it will be absolutely fantastic to see Farah and Marshall back at it together again for the Wests Tigers.
I hear Scott Prince still goes alright in touch football. Perhaps seeing Farah and Marshall back at the Tigers will inspire him to make a comeback too! In all seriousness, the return of Marshall, and now Farah is fantastic for the Tigers. Both players deserve to finish their careers on a high at the club they started at.
Mbye’s arrival will solve the fullback problem for coach Cleary. It will allow Corey Thompson to permanently move back to the wing while Lolohea will move back to reserve grade to find his feet and nail down a position. It will provide great stability for the Tigers all over the park.
Mbye has been very dangerous from kick returns all season. Having played most of his career so far in the halves, he is also a good ball-player and general-play kicker. Him being in the team will take pressure off Brooks and Reynolds or Marshall (whoever ends up in the 6 jersey).
History tells us that the top 8 midway through the year will not survive to be the top 8 come season’s end. One or two will inevitably drop out. From the teams outside the eight, it’s the Tigers and the Raiders that seem most likely to take someone’s spot.
While both on 14 points, the Raiders have superior for-and-against with 36, compared to the Tigers’ -35. The Tigers will need some big wins to combat this.
The Tigers play the Sea Eagles, the Bulldogs and the Titans before the end of the season. They will be expected to win these games. They also play top teams the Dragons and the Rabbitohs twice each. They will want to win at least two of those games. Round 22 also presents them with a chance to take points off the Raiders – this is a must-win game.
Making the top eight from 10th position is always an uphill battle. But the arrivals of Robbie Farah, and soon Moses Mbye will make this an easier task for the Tigers.
Will new arrivals get the Tigers back on track? Let us know in the comments below.
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