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Season review: Wests Tigers

Chris Kennedy, NRL.com Wed, Oct 03, 2012 - 10:00 AM

Benji Marshall comfortably led the Telstra Premiership after 26 rounds for try assists with 35. Copyright: NRL Photos

Wins: 11
Losses: 13
Position: 10th (=9th)
Home Record: 5 wins, 6 losses (10th)
Away Record: 6 wins, 7 losses (8th)
  
Longest Winning Streak: 7 (Round 7-14)
Longest Losing Streak: 5 (Rounds 2-6)
Players Used: 29
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 89 (=6th)
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 95 (11th)

After consecutive top-four finishes in 2010 and 2011 there is no sugar-coating the fact that this season was one of major underachievement for the Tigers.

On the back of tremendous hype they were installed as the bookies’ pre-season favourites but during their early engagements they seemed like anything but potential premiers. A fortuitous Round 1 win was followed by five straight losses which had them mired to the foot of the ladder.

There followed a complete form reversal as the Tigers strung together seven straight wins and spent most of the back half of the season inside the top eight; however during a period of grief following the death of skipper Robbie Farah’s mother they were only able to pull together three wins from their final 11 matches and tumbled out of finals reckoning.

It’s hard to put a finger on exactly where it went wrong for the Tigers but they certainly struggled for combinations. Benji Marshall wore the No.6 and partnered with Tom Humble (four games), Tim Moltzen (three games) and Jacob Miller (one game) in the halves before his switch to halfback. Following this Chris Lawrence (three games), Liam Fulton (three games), Blake Ayshford (three games) and Moltzen (one game) all tried their hand at the pivot role.

The most likely candidate appeared to be Curtis Sironen, son of former Balmain legend Paul, who started five of his six games at five-eighth before injury ended his season early and added to the Tigers’ casualty ward (which began filling up in Round 1 when livewire debutant fullback James Tedesco suffered a season-ending knee injury).

To be fair the Tigers were amongst the worst-hit teams when it came to injuries, missing key men from both the forwards and the backs for long periods. Their 29 players used were the equal most of any team other than the Panthers (33), but it was the lack of quality playmaking support for Marshall that hurt the most.

Club captain Robbie Farah led from the front admirably while he was on the park but missed eight games through injury and representative duty and his absence was never more keenly felt than in the club’s capitulations in the final two rounds of the season against the Roosters and Storm.

Where They Excelled… The man trying to create everything himself certainly had some sterling moments in 2012. Although criticised in some quarters for indifferent form, Benji Marshall comfortably led the Telstra Premiership after 26 rounds for try assists with 35 (next best Cooper Cronk, 29) and line-break assists with 32 (next best Johnathan Thurston, 24).

Marshall had no choice but to reach deep into his bag of tricks on every occasion and they were all on show in 2012: the no-look pass (his inside ball to Moltzen for his Round 23 match-winner against the Dragons was one of the touches of the season), the cut-out, the ball-on-a-string-grubber kick, the clutch field goal – but the fact he also notched the equal most errors for the regular season (38) suggests he may have sometimes been trying just a little too much.

As has been the case for a number of years, when Marshall was on, the Tigers were on, and when he wasn’t, there was very little in terms of a ‘Plan B’.

Where They Struggled… The Tigers landed somewhere between 6th and 11th for almost all key attacking and defensive categories, with two notable exceptions.

Their six line-breaks conceded per game were the most of any club, and no doubt closely tied to their 36 missed tackles per game (third worst). Benji notched the most misses at the club with 96, while new-buy second-rower Adam Blair missed 77.

The second major category that really let down the Tigers was territory. Only the Roosters gained less ground per week than the Tigers, who averaged 1277 metres. Blair made just 72 metres per game despite playing close to 80 minutes per week, and the other second-rowers also struggled. Even discounting the games Fulton played in the halves or at hooker, he and Ellis averaged only 82 metres apiece when starting in the second row.

Missing In Action… As mentioned above the Tigers’ injury woes got off to the worst possible start when highly rated youngster James Tedesco ruptured an ACL 30 minutes into the season. The club’s poor early season results coincided with injury layoffs to key forwards Keith Galloway and Gareth Ellis (who missed three months with a broken foot).

Veteran winger Lote Tuqiri’s season was ended by a broken arm in Round 18 having already missed significant game time, Fulton missed several games late in the season with a rib injury, boom youngster Curtis Sironen’s season finished early due to a dislocated shoulder that required surgery and a broken hand saw Farah miss the last two games, having already missed six throughout the year.

Turning Point… The resurgent Tigers’ bubble burst in Round 15 at Leichhardt as the Roosters snapped their seven-match winning streak. Inspirational skipper Robbie Farah pulled out shortly before the match following the tragic news his mother Sonia had passed away. The shock also clearly affected the team, who still fought back valiantly from a 30-4 deficit with four quick tries to threaten an amazing comeback, but fell short.

Having won over plenty of fans with a herculean performance in Origin II Farah won plenty more by returning to the field the following week but couldn’t prevent a sequence that saw Wests lose five from six matches, and they never really recovered from there.

Best Games… The sixth and seventh matches of the Tigers’ winning run represented the point where people started really considering the gold and black as premiership threats again after their early wobbles, and were also probably the club’s best performances of 2012.

In Round 13 the Tigers put on a footballing clinic in the nation’s capital as Marshall notched three try assists on his way to orchestrating a 40-0 embarrassment of the Green Machine. Canberra weren’t great that day, more than doubling the Tigers’ missed tackle and error counts, but Wests were simply red hot as they showed what they were capable of when they click.

They backed it up the following week by claiming the points from one of rugby league’s toughest road trips. Admittedly the Storm were missing their ‘big three’ to Origin duty but the Tigers were without Farah for the same reason and were also forced into a further late reshuffle when Moltzen injured himself in the warm-up. Having never previously won in Melbourne, Wests showed they could win tough as well as flashy as they clawed out a 10-6 win.

Worst Games… Things were grim in their early losing run but few of those games were exactly woeful when considered individually; the two worst games came at the end. In Round 24 the Tigers got within a point of competition frontrunners Canterbury, but a contentious obstruction ruling from the video ref broke their hearts; an innocuous looking tackle in golden point extra time broke their captain’s hand and the result seemed to break their spirit.

They proceeded to play that way in a 44-20 capitulation to wooden spoon contenders the Roosters the following week, and rounded out the season with a comprehensive 26-6 loss to the Storm at Leichhardt a week later. In both games the Tigers seemed bereft of direction and fighting spirit and it was a frustrating end to the season for fans.

Hold Your Head High… Bustling young prop Aaron Woods was consistently the best of the forwards, running for 138 metres per week alongside 35 tackles per game and coming within a whisker of making his Origin debut.

The Mr Fix-it of the backline, Beau Ryan, also enjoyed the best season of his career. Shifted from wing (11 games) to centre (eight games) and fullback (five games) based on the team’s needs, Ryan was safe as houses under the high ball and played every game, running more than 100 metres per week and scoring nine tries.

CEO Stephen Humphreys says: “2012 has been a challenging year. There is no hiding from the fact that our NRL performances this year were very disappointing and we are all hurting because of it. We have been working hard to review all facets of our operation. We are determined to find ways to improve our performance, both on and off the field.”

Conclusion… The problems at the Tigers may be deeper than just on-field, as evidenced by the post-season departures of club stalwarts Chris Heighington and Beau Ryan, and uncertainty surrounding coach Tim Sheens who has been “elevated” (pushed?) to the new position of coaching director.  It’s hard to know whether backroom dramas were responsible for the on-field results but if they can put the latest turbulence behind them and Farah remains at the club along with Marshall, they have the nucleus of a strong team with some good young players coming through. However, camaraderie amongst players is a huge factor in a successful football side; how the Tigers form their new bonds will go a long way to determining how they figure in the immediate seasons to come.  

*Statistics - NRL Stats