Home Record: 9 wins, 3 losses (4th)
Away Record: 6 wins, 6 losses (=5th)
Longest Winning Streak: 9 (Round 19 – Finals Week 1)
Longest Losing Streak: 3 (Rounds 15-18)
Players Used: 30 (equal sixth most)
Player of the Year: Gareth Ellis
Tries Scored: (After 26 rounds) 92 – third most
Tries Conceded: (After 26 rounds) 76 – sixth fewest
The looks on the faces of the Wests Tigers players following their semi-final loss to the Warriors said it all: not so much one of disappointment but of complete and utter shock. Such was the level of expectation surrounding the Tigers this season – and their form on the back of nine consecutive wins heading into that game – that they had barely stopped to consider the fact that they could fall short of playing in a grand final qualifier for the second year in a row. Yet the NRL is an unforgiving beast and it took just one remarkable half of football for their season to come to a sudden end as they gave up an 18-6 half-time lead to be eliminated with a 22-20 loss.
The nature of that result and the fact that the final 90 seconds was the only time in the entire match that the Warriors held the lead proved a bitter pill to swallow for the Tigers – so much so that coach Tim Sheens was almost speechless in the post-match press conference.
Yet it is this level of expectation that the club has long sought and the fact that their exit from the 2011 premiership race was considered such a shock is testimony to just how far the Tigers have come over the past few seasons.
If 2010 saw them finally return to finals football for the first time since their premiership season of 2005, this year proved that they have the talent and fighting qualities to mix it with the big guns on a regular basis.
A run of eight wins in a row heading into the finals saw the Tigers finish in fourth spot on the ladder. They produced a superb second half to take care of premiers St George Illawarra in Week One of the finals. And for 78 minutes of their next encounter they had the Warriors’ measure. But for the bounce of the ball they could still be there.
This was the year in which a number of Tigers stepped up to the plate, none more so than superstar five-eighth Benji Marshall whose seemingly endless bag of tricks had commentators grasping for more superlatives. Prop Keith Galloway was rampant up front and earned a State of Origin debut for NSW in Game III. And the Tigers’ spine of Marshall, Robbie Farah, Robert Lui and Tim Moltzen well and truly clicked into gear in the back half of the season.
Yet the record books will show that the Tigers did not win the 2011 Telstra Premiership and they will take no solace in the strides they made throughout the year. Perhaps it is the motivation they will need to take it one step further in 12 months’ time.
Where They Excelled: The Tigers’ success in 2011 was built on a potent attacking force that was the envy of the NRL. While Marshall was sensational, it was the return from injury of Tim Moltzen at fullback that provided the final piece in the puzzle. His presence alongside fellow playmakers Robbie Farah and Robert Lui gave the Tigers a four-pronged attack that proved almost unstoppable in the run home to the finals. Key to their success was the fact that they could attack all cross the park.
The Tigers were the most dangerous side in the NRL on the right side of the field with 46 tries scored but they also scored 28 on the left and 18 through the middle. They were the most efficient side in the comp at spreading the ball from one side of the field to the other – running their opponents ragged. And they were lethal around the rucks with 12 line-breaks from dummy-half – the most in the NRL.
Where They Struggled: For all their good work with the ball in hand, the Tigers let themselves down in the detail at times – none more so than their kick-chase. In fact, their 254 ‘good’ chases were the second fewest tallied in the NRL, ahead of only Canterbury, and easily the worst of any of the top-eight sides. By comparison, Brisbane produced 142 more ‘good’ chases in 2011 with 396, while Melbourne weren’t far behind with 389. Not surprisingly, the Tigers also produced 46 poor chases – a statistic only exceeded by lowly Parramatta.
Missing In Action: The Tigers were blessed when it came to their key position players – Marshall, Farah, Moltzen and Lui missed a grand total of just three games between them – but their forward pack was stretched at times while the absence of left-side pairing Lote Tuqiri and Chris Lawrence at various stages no doubt contributed to them favouring their right edge instead.
The Tigers paid a high price for their Round 3 win over Canberra with Tuqiri breaking his arm and Lawrence sustaining a serious hip injury that sidelined him for three months. Tuqiri later broke his ankle in his first game back and ended the season with just nine games to his name.
There remains concern for the future of young forward Simon Dwyer who suffered nerve damage in his neck against the Bulldogs in Round 16, while veteran prop Todd Payten’s career came to a premature end with an ankle injury.
Turning Point: The Tigers’ season was at a crossroads after they fell to a woeful 22-6 loss to lowly Parramatta in Round 18. Perhaps it was the jolt they needed? Whatever the case, the Tigers didn’t lose another regular season game. A 38-18 thrashing of North Queensland a week later kick-started their season, with Marshall and Moltzen wreaking havoc together. They followed that up with impressive wins over Sydney Roosters, Manly, St George Illawarra, Penrith, Parramatta, the Gold Coast and Cronulla.
Best Games: A toss-up between their Round 21 nail-biter over Manly and their 16-14 win over the Dragons a week later. Often criticised for favouring style over substance, the Tigers dug deep to produce a stirring second-half comeback after trailing the Sea Eagles 12-0 at the break. An eight-minute burst that saw Lui, Blake Ayshford and Chris Lawrence cross was enough for the Tigers to claim a 14-12 win.
They backed that up with a similar performance against the Dragons, scoring another three second-half tries – including a classic 70-metre effort in the dying minutes that was finished by Beau Ryan – to escape with victory.
Worst Games: The Tigers were insipid in their Round 18 loss to old rivals Parramatta with even coach Tim Sheens admitting he had rarely seen his side play so poorly. Plagued by basic errors, the Tigers rarely troubled the Eels tryline and never looked in the contest as they trailed 8-0 at the break and 20-0 midway through the second half. Indeed, it was only the Eels’ attacking struggles that prevented them piling on a huge score. The Tigers completed just 19 of 37 sets, enjoyed just 42 per cent possession and were forced to make almost 100 more tackles than Parramatta.
Hold Your Head High: Benji Marshall spent years limping from one injury nightmare to the next – now we’re seeing the benefits of the hard work he put in to come through the other side. Marshall was simply breathtaking in 2011, his freakish passing game complemented by a better understanding of when to inject himself into the game.
Two key plays summed up Marshall’s season. Against Manly in Round 21 he took off down the short side from dummy-half to set up the match-winning try for Chris Lawrence, then a week later he threw a remarkable cut-out pass to again send Lawrence away for the decisive play. Marshall finished the season with 27 line-break assists, 24 try assists, 16 line-breaks and 99 tackle-breaks.
Captain Robbie Farah says: “It’s disappointing but the effort over the last three months was first class. We just continued to work hard even when things weren’t going our way. There was a lot of crap in the media about us but we knuckled down as a group and stuck together. That’s why I’m proud of the boys. It could have easily derailed our season but we didn’t let that happen. The young kids that have some experience will be better for it but it’s disappointing with the guys leaving. We didn’t give Todd Payten the chance to get back on the field.”
Conclusion: There was so much to like about the Tigers in 2011, but for a club that now considers itself a genuine premiership contender, falling two games short of a grand final was a long way from meeting their own expectations. No doubt the playing and coaching staff will spend the off-season lamenting the one that got away.
Still, it’s a harsh judge that rates 2011 a failure. With a relatively healthy playing roster in the back half of the year, the Tigers stormed home with nine wins in a row and proved in the process that they can tough it put against their fellow premiership heavyweights.