THE jury is certainly still out on the Wests Tigers so far this season. And if they want people to start leaning towards a favourable verdict, they need to show some muscle and compete hard against Melbourne this Monday night.
This doesn’t necessarily mean they have to come away victorious – although that certainly would help the 13th-placed side – but they do need to show more willingness in defence, something that has been severely lacking.
Thankfully for them they take on the Storm at Leichhardt Oval, a place they have won four of five games against Melbourne, and thankfully for them the Storm look nowhere near as dominant as they have in the past three seasons.
Melbourne sit in seventh spot in the ladder, just one win ahead of the Tigers.
Wests Tigers coach Tim Sheens has tinkered slightly with the side that fell to Manly 23-10 last weekend, with Tim Moltzen returning from injury at fullback and Rhys Hanbury moving back to the bench (with Shannon McDonnell making way).
Todd Payten, in his 100th game for the Tigers, will move from lock to prop, with Bryce Gibbs starting on the bench and Danny Galea starting at lock.
The Storm have kept a similar side to the one that pipped the Panthers in Melbourne last week.
James Maloney retains his spot at five-eighth with Greg Inglis in the centres, although new signing Brett Finch could be a late replacement.
Wairangi Koopu has been named to start in place of Kevin Proctor, who reverts to the bench, and Scott Anderson has been added to the bench of five.
Skipper Cameron Smith celebrates his 150th first grade game.
Watch out Wests Tigers: Storm fullback Billy Slater has been impressive without being great so far this season, which means he is due to explode! His metres are down to 99 per game but he still four line breaks, three line-break assists, two try assists and three tries.
Amazingly, not one of his line breaks is from a kick return, as opposition teams try to limit his involvement by kicking to the wingers or kicking the ball dead on purpose. Watch for Slater to reposition himself to get more touches and therefore have a greater influence on the result.
Watch out Storm: The Wests Tigers are leading the NRL in line breaks with 25 so far this season, which is significantly more than the Storm has managed this season.
Melbourne are sitting 13th in the NRL with just 15 line breaks this year. While their defence has been pretty solid against the other sides, the Storm now come up against the razzle-dazzle of the Tigers, so they can by no means be complacent.
Big winger Taniela Tuiaki leads the way for the Tigers with six line breaks; centre Chris Lawrence has four while Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah have three each.
The Tigers are also doing well at finding space from kicks, doing so on 66.7 per cent of occasions (ranked second in NRL) compared to the Storm’s 48.7 per cent (14th).
Where it will be won: If the Wests Tigers are to have any chance here they must be tougher in defence. They are still by far the worst defensive team in the NRL and that spells danger when you come up against the likes of Billy Slater, Greg Inglis, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith.
They only need to look at Melbourne to see how it’s done. The Storm have an effective tackle rate of 92.1 per cent to lead the NRL in the statistic. The Wests Tigers on the other hand are only 85 per cent effective, which has them ranked 13th.
This means that on 15 per cent of occasions, the Tigers’ defence either misses the mark or is completely ineffective and allows second-phase play. Considering the difference in a match can be a single line break, this is unacceptable for first grade.
Defence is about attitude and commitment so the boys in black, white and gold need to have a good look at themselves in the mirror and decide if they will put their bodies on the line for 80 minutes.
If they can do that, their attack is more than potent enough to trouble the Storm and set up a victory.
The History: Played 16; Wests Tigers 5, Storm 11. The Wests Tigers may have won only five matches against the Storm but four of them have been at Leichhardt Oval where they hold a 4-1 record over Melbourne. The only time Melbourne beat the Tigers at Leichhardt was in 2005, the year the joint venture went on to claim their first premiership.
Conclusion: Despite the sensational record against the Storm at Leichhardt Oval the Wests Tigers will need to be much better than they were last start, and in fact have been all season.
They may have beaten the Raiders and Roosters but they are yet to show a full 80-minute performance of any note. They have had flashes of brilliance but also flashes of downright ineptness defensively – and that needs to stop.
The Storm are by no means flying, but they are a disciplined side that knows how to win ugly, something the Tigers haven’t yet mastered. A Tigers win is possible, but not probable.
Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Shayne Hayne; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Steve Chiddy; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.