Wests Tigers' 2014 Season Review
Oh, to be so young.
It's probably the safest way to approach what was a sour end to the season for Wests Tigers fans, whose club wasted a supreme opportunity to fast-track their next generation of stars with a surprise return to the finals.
The joint venture club were on the verge of a top eight birth when skipper Robbie Farah returned from Origin duty and played second fiddle to the club's prodigious school of kids, led by rookie halves Mitchell Moses and Luke Brooks, and their trouncing of then-NRL leaders Canterbury-Bankstown in Round 19.
It was supposedly the start of a new dawn. The turning of a new page. The beginning of a new era.
But alas, one week later and on the morning of their next clash with the Dragons, the front page of the The Sunday Telegraph reported coach Mick Potter was going to be told his services were no longer required at the end of the season.
Later that day former Kangaroos star Gorden Tallis alleged Farah told him Potter "couldn't coach".
And from that day on the Tigers were an almost unrecognisable bunch, spiralling their way towards a third straight season without finals football with six straight defeats, and extending their regeneration as a force at least another season.
With the post-Benji Marshall era upon them, the rebuild started promisingly enough as the Tigers won five of their first seven to fly to second on the NRL table almost a third of the way through the year.
Second-year pro Luke Brooks was going from strength to strength, fullback James Tedesco turned his back on a lucrative deal at the Raiders to stay with his mates, while a healthy front-row pairing of Keith Galloway and Aaron Woods kept them on the front foot.
The hump of the season returned mixed results, stealing wins against the lowly Sharks, Knights, Raiders but falling to top-eight contenders Brisbane, South Sydney, Penrith and Manly.
But the weekend in late July was undoubtedly the turning point, with Farah seeking help for stress and at one point admitting to thoughts of walking out on the club he'd debuted with in 2003.
At the time of publication, Potter is still yet to be informed of his immediate future with the club.
Where They Excelled: Their up-tempo combination of dummy-half running (434 – ranked 1st) and offloads (261 – 4th) caused plenty of problems early in the season as teams struggled to keep pace with their high-energy work rate. Leading them in second-phase play was Aaron Woods (34) and Adam Blair (32).
They were that half-a-yard quicker in defence too, forcing a total of 268 errors – fifth most in the NRL.
Where They Struggled: Their risk-taking in defence proved to be their ultimate downfall, however, as they were ranked 15th in missed tackles (817) and dead last in points (631) and opposition line breaks (137). The main culprits in defence were Luke Brooks (116 missed tackles), Bodene Thompson (62) and Blair (58).
The numbers weren't pretty in attack too, ranking 14th in tries (73) and try assists (51), 15th in errors (292) and goal line drop outs, and dead last in kick metres (11033m).
Missing In Action: It was more a case of missing in action physically, as opposed to metaphorically, for the Tigers, whose casualty ward hit double figures late in the year. Senior men Liam Fulton and Braith Anasta were forced into premature retirement by mid-season with concussion and bicep injuries respectively, while key men James Tedesco, Curtis Sironen and Tim Simona all failed to get past the 15-game mark.
Turning Point: We can't go past the events of the Round 21 weekend, when again coach Potter was supposedly a dead man walking on game-eve, while the Tallis-Farah stoush led to the Tigers' skipper going to ground for over a week.
The Tigers were just never the same after that, looking a shadow of the free-spirited joint venture they had become in the opening stages of the new season. It's not exactly rare for a team's entire campaign to be derailed by off-season drama, and while they did their best to deny it, the proof was certainly in the proverbial pudding, losing their next five games to fall severely off the screen of the NRL radar.
Best Games: If their Round 3 upset of premiership heavyweights South Sydney shook the entire competition, then their demolition job on the Sea Eagles a fortnight later blew out the rugby league Richter scale.
Under-rated, under-appreciated, and under the big men radar, the Tigers' assortment of front men took it to their highly rated counterparts, and made the early season statement that they weren't the wooden spoon favourites many predicted them to be.
The club's 46-18 pasting of the Bulldogs in Round 19 was also a sight to behold, with their school of kids putting on a clinic against a side that were at that point, joint ladder leaders.
Worst Games: There were indeed some nights uglier than a boggy Leichhardt Oval, not least their back-to-back embarrassments against the Cowboys and Roosters in Rounds 22 and 23, when they conceded a combined 132 points.
But those games were when they were forced into shovelling out second-rowers onto the wing and blooded blokes so far away from NRL standard you thought they were from another sporting code. You could see the bloodbath coming.
So we go back to a heartbreaker against the Broncos in Campbelltown, when a 77th-minute penalty goal from Ben Hunt spoiled their 15th-year anniversary as a joint venture club, which was somewhat of a prelude to their messy boardroom issues that were to play out later on in the season.
Hold Your Head High: He had a couple of highly reputable bookends ploughing away in front of him, but power player Martin Taupau was every inch the impact weapon he intended to be in his first season at Concord.
One of just two players to appear in every game for the black-and-gold this year, Taupau charmed the media and the locals alike with his ability to talk the talk, and walk the walk. Whether it was before, during, or after a game, the former Bulldog wasn't afraid to call out opposition forward packs, and nor did he back down from a confrontation.
Put it this way: He was a young halfback's dream team-mate.
Utility Blake Austin also never stopped trying, despite playing almost every position in the line-up bar the wing and front row.
Conclusion: No-one was telling fibs about the endless talent pool simmering out at Tigers HQ – it was there for all to see in glimpses across the entire season. But the club's perceived mismanagement off the field, in particularly their handling of Potter's coaching future, as well as a public mid-season review, wasn't quite the conducive learning environment for their school of talented juniors.
The sooner they get stability up top – and they finally got their independent board members from the NRL in the first week of September – the sooner the next generation can stop worrying about off-field distractions and focus on how to mix it with the big boys on it.
Home Record: 6-6
Away Record: 4-8
Longest Winning Streak: 3 (Rounds 5-7)
Longest Losing Streak: 6 (Rounds 20-25)
Players Used: 32 (second most)
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 73 (14th)
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 110 (14th)
*Stats: Champion Data