Mid-Season Review: Wests Tigers

Position after 13 rounds: 7th
Wins: 6
Losses: 6
Byes: 1
Competition points: 14
Differential: 18

Most pundits tipped the Tigers to finish in the top four this year; some even boldly predicted they’d be the men most likely to challenge the reigning premiers St George Illawarra for the 2011 title. But while the Tigers haven’t played themselves out of calculations they have a mountain of work to do just to ensure they host a home semi-final.

It’s true injuries to key players have savaged Tim Sheens’ premiership plans but the players have fallen well short of the mark, particularly their forwards who have been error-prone and have failed to dominate oppositions with go-forward.

The lack of strike-power means they’re increasingly relying on Robbie Farah and Benji Marshall to stir their pot, but even this duo have been off the boil at times.

There haven’t been too many highlights, with the exception a forceful 30-6 win over Souths in Round 5 – although they unravelled to the same team 29-18 in Round 10. They lost 24-6 to the Roosters in Round 4 and the most joy they’ve provided their fans was a 49-12 demolition of the Raiders in Canberra... but that was the Green Machine’s seventh loss in a row.

Last week they escaped with the competition points against the Knights courtesy of a Farah field-goal in extra time. It was a crucial win as a loss would have seen them head into the back half of the season outside the eight.

The next nine weeks are paramount; in that period they meet the Warriors (away), Storm, Bulldogs, Cowboys, Sea Eagles and Dragons, with their only ‘soft’ games against the Eels and Roosters. If they don’t emerge with a better than 50 per cent return they may well end up battling for the bottom two spots in the top eight.

Are Things Going To Plan? Far from it, although the side is hanging in there. Injuries (see below) have forced significant reshuffles and the unit has lacked continuity as a result. Only seven players have suited up every week – thankfully key personnel Robbie Farah and Benji Marshall among them.

Injury Front… Coach Sheens has had to call on 29 troops so far – the second most by any team. They were rocked when 2009 top tryscorer Taniela Tuiaki announced his premature retirement after failing to overcome a chronic ankle injury. Dual international Lote Tuqiri made it through just three games before breaking his arm against the Raiders – and he suffered more woes last week when injuring his knee and ankle early in the game against the Knights. So too centre Chris Lawrence, who badly dislocated a hip against the Raiders (he’s due back Round 20). Stiff Brit Gareth Ellis played just five games in the opening 13 weeks. Bryce Gibbs and Liam Fulton have taken to the paddock just seven times, Todd Payten has played six games. And halfback Robert Lui was sidelined for three games.

Most recently Matt Utai broke his arm against the Dragons in Round 12 and will miss six weeks, while fullback Wade McKinnon has been hindered by a hamstring niggle.

That’s a lot of muscle – and continuity – out the window.

If Only… They could find a way to make a dent in oppositions. Injuries to their forward pack and a lack of serious spark from their depth players has seen the Tigers averaging just 1315 metres each week – only the 10th most by any side. Against the Titans they managed just 923 – the NRL-low mark for 2011.

There’s no excuse really, given they rank No.1 for tackle-breaks (average 43.7) behind the Cowboys and third for line-breaks (5). Clearly the backs are being asked to do too much.

Who’s Flying… A few guys are soaring but no-one’s gone supersonic.

Marshall is playing like Benji Marshall. He’s ranked third for try assists and line-break assists (13 each), has made 52 tackle-breaks (including 12 against the Knights), seven line-breaks and scored five tries. Par for the course.

Robbie Farah leads all hookers for try assists (with 10, double second-best Michael Ennis’ five) but has sorely missed continuity in the pack.

Elsewhere Chris Heighington is punching out triple-figure metres each week and has 22 offloads, Andrew Fifita has 62 tackle-breaks (the most by any forward in the comp), Robert Lui has five try assists and fullback Wade McKinnon has troubled defences on occasion with his kick-returns, tallying 131 metres a game in total… but that’s about it.

Needs To Lift… The Tigers could do with more in attack from back-rowers Liam Fulton and Simon Dwyer. Both have just six offloads for the year and while Dwyer has six line-breaks, Fulton has just two. Fulton stamped himself an offensive threat last year with some damaging runs and offloads close to the line. He needs to recapture that.

Halfback Robert Lui is an important cog but has been guilty of switching off at times, particularly in defence. He is missing 3.4 tackles a game and some have been crucial misses.  

Assistant Coach Peter Gentle tells NRL.com “All things considered our year has been just a five or six out of 10. We’ve been too inconsistent and while we’ve had our injuries we don’t want to use that as an excuse. The players that are there are good enough and we need them to be at their best. We need to get better in completions, defence and in some of the options we are taking… there are a whole range of things. We have been fortunate that the base of our spine – Benji and Robbie – have played every game. They and Chris Heighington and Keith Galloway have been our best. But we need to knuckle down.”

Predicted Finish… Their next month is crucial – they have a tough game against the Warriors in New Zealand this week, then play the Storm after Origin II, followed by the Bulldogs before their second bye in Round 17. If the Tigers can manage just the one loss in that period they’ll stay in touch with the bottom half of the eight. They have tough games against the Cowboys, Sea Eagles and Dragons to come but have a relatively ‘cruisey’ run into the finals with games against Panthers, Eels, Titans and Sharks. Providing they’re not hit by more injuries there’s scope for improvement. We see them finishing sixth.

Under-20s… With six wins, four losses and two draws, the sixth-placed Tiger cubs are proving every bit as enigmatic as the senior team. Four of their wins have been by 13-plus, including a rousing 36-22 win over the premier Warriors and 30-16 win over premiership fancies Brisbane in Round 7. But they’ve also suffered some surprise defeats (one to the struggling Rabbitohs) and their two draws were against the Roosters and Titans, also sides well below them on the ladder.  They’ve been best served by winger Limoni Kamuta who has made 54 tackle-breaks and averages 140 metres a game, while halfback Jacob Miller is the schemer around the ruck, with four try assists and five line-break assists, while utility back Tim Simona has made his presence felt every week with 47 tackle-breaks, five try assists and 127 metres a game.

Wests Tigers' player stats for 2011

Compare the stats of every NRL team in 2011