Wests Tigers: Season Review

Regular Season
WINS: 12
LOSSES: 12
POSITION: 9th
HOME RECORD: 7 wins, 5 losses (=11th)
AWAY RECORD: 5 wins, 7 losses (=6th)

After Finals
Did Not Qualify
 
BEST WINNING STREAK: 6 (rounds 17-23)
LONGEST LOSING STREAK: 5 (rounds 8-13)
PLAYERS USED: 28 (7 debutants)
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Gareth Ellis
TRIES SCORED (after 26 rounds): 103 (Equal most in NRL)
TRIES CONCEDED (after 26 rounds): 83 (Equal 6th fewest)

They say there’s only ever two years worth worrying about if you’re a Wests Tigers fan – and that’s 2005 and next year.

That’s because in ’05 the Tigers went on their dream run and won the grand final, while every other season in their history prior to and since then has seen them miss the finals.

Unfortunately, yet again, Wests Tigers failed to make the top eight. Players and coaches said at the beginning of the rounds and throughout the year that anything short of a playoffs appearance would be a disappointment, and it’s fair to say the organisation could be considerably happier.

However, if you’re willing to be a patient Tigers fan, you may appreciate that 2009 wasn’t as bad as others – and if there was ever an acceptable middle ground between success and failure, the joint-venture side found it this year.

True, they missed playing in September, but is playing finals matches the only measuring stick for a good season?

The Wests Tigers unearthed some brilliant new talent, found some stability in key positions, and despite a mounting injury toll, went on a six-match winning streak late in the season to bring them just a point shy of the top eight.

Where They Excelled… In the back end of the season, the Tigers showed some real backbone. They displayed what they’re capable of in attack when they buried the Bunnies 54-20 in Round 17 and then secured tricky victories over the Cowboys and the Raiders in Canberra.

The money match in their season came when they knocked off defending premiers Manly 19-18 in Monday Night Football at the SFS in Round 21. It was arguably the gutsiest display by a team this year – and it showed that the Tigers could be gritty.

The side scored 103 tries this season, which along with Souths was the most scored by any side in 2009. Their defence also improved from last season. Now it’s the “grind” they need to master.

Where They Struggled… In a competition as tight as the NRL, losing close matches is always the death knell for top-eight aspirants. It’s a problem that has long plagued the Tigers and it stifled them again this year. Against eventual minor premiers the Bulldogs in Round 8, the Tigers were shattered after they went down 22-20 (it was the only match Benji Marshall missed all season). As if letting a win slip against the ’Dogs wasn’t enough, in Round 10 a miraculous Nathan Merritt field goal after the fulltime siren saw the Rabbitohs get the Wests Tigers by one point at the SCG.

Then in Round 11, some controversial decisions helped Brisbane to a 20-18 win at Campbelltown. The first three losses of their five-match losing streak were by two points or less, and that ladies and gentlemen was the Tigers’ season.

Missing In Action…
Keith Galloway and Chris Lawrence boasted outstanding form. Both were being talked about as State of Origin bolters, and Galloway in particular would have been a real chance of snatching a Blues jersey, especially after NSW went down 2-0 in the series.

But just two weeks out from Origin, both players went down and spent extended periods on the sideline. With Galloway in the front row and Lawrence in the centres, the Tigers were an infinitely better side this season, but unfortunately both players missed too much footy in the middle of winter.

Turning Point… In Round 24 the Tigers played the Eels in a cracking game at the Sydney Football Stadium. During the first half, top try-scorer Taniela Tuiaki broke his ankle and left the field and opposite winger Beau Ryan also went down and had to leave the arena for a period. Playing two backline players down is unheard of in the modern game and the Tigers did incredibly well to hang in there.

But a spectacular try by Jarryd Hayne late in the game saw Parramatta escape with victory – and in the end that was the difference between the Tigers or the Eels being the ‘wild card’ entry into the playoffs. Of course it was the blue-and-golds who got through, and given the Eels’ form through the finals the Leichhardt and Campbelltown faithful have every right to ponder what might have been.

Best Game…Was in Round 21 when they clipped the Sea Eagles’ wings in Monday Night Football at the SFS. Manly didn’t play badly, and led by Anthony Watmough, stormed home late in the match. However the Tigers, who held a handsome lead at halftime, showed enormous courage to hold on.

If they had made the finals it would have been their season-defining game. Unfortunately they missed out anyway, but this match proved what they’re capable of. The joint-venture really haven’t played hard-nosed football since 2005, but this showed they can.

Worst Game…
In Round 13 on home soil, the Tigers had a golden opportunity to dig themselves out of their five-match losing streak when they played Penrith at Leichhardt Oval. But Wests didn’t turn up and the Panthers cruised to a far too comfortable 26-10 win.

It was a must-win match – and the Tigers didn’t want it enough against a beatable opposition.

Hold Your Head High…
Gareth Ellis was arguably the buy of 2009. The Englishman was up there with Anthony Watmough and Ben Creagh as a candidate for second-rower of the year, and will only get better in the NRL in 2010.

Ellis brought that tough, grinding attitude to Tigertown that has been so desperately needed; the other players need to learn from him. He formed part of the Tigers’ dangerous and penetrative left side, which featured Benji Marshall, Chris Lawrence and Taniela Tuiaki.

Ellis averaged 104 metres per match, got away 22 offloads and made 291 runs.

Assistant Coach Royce Simmons Says…
“Some positives came out of it but at the end of the day we’re disappointed on missing the playoffs. We’ve learnt we’ve just got to win those tight games which we didn’t win enough of and that’s the difference between running into the top four or finishing ninth.

“If anything we need to play a bit more field position and downplay things. We tend to get a bit excited and go for the big plays instead of hanging on and winning the game in a ‘meaner’ way.”

“We scored 103 tries, which was equal highest in the competition and the best since 2005. We crossed the line plenty of times and we only conceded 83 tries, so there’s some positives there too.

“No doubt Gareth Ellis was very consistent and played tough and strong each week. He played 80 minutes in all the games bar one.

“Benji Marshall too built into the season, and I don’t know of any other player playing the game who has had five shoulder dislocations and is still playing. I think that’s a big effort on its own. Getting a full season under his belt, I can only see him getting more confident and playing better next year. He captained New Zealand which is a big thing, and he ended up with 26 line-break assists.

“Robbie Farah broke into Origin football and he ran fourth in the Dally Ms and he was the leading dummy-half in line breaks.

“Taniela Tuiaki was Dally M winger of the year and if he hadn’t have been injured he might have finished on 27 tries.”

Conclusion… We know this could be difficult for Wests Tigers’ fans to swallow but we’re going to sit on the fence for yet another 12 months before passing judgment on 2008.

In time, 2009 might prove to have been just another coulda’, woulda’, shoulda’ year. But there is enough evidence to suggest that it may also have been the building season necessary to launch a strong challenge in 2010.

Remember, there’s 2005 and there’s next year…