Joel Caine (right) was the only player to appear in all 26 games for the Wests Tigers in their inaugural season.

'We probably shouldn't have played'

An assignment against the team who would be premiers and a 'sand-bowl spray-painted green' welcomed the Wests Tigers into the National Rugby League in 2000 yet they came within a whisker of springing a monumental upset.

A team cobbled together from a half dozen former Balmain players, a handful of Western Suburbs players and a conglomerate of hardened imports ran out to represent the Wests Tigers in their first premiership match against the mighty Brisbane Broncos boasting 15 players with either Origin or international experience.

It was a mismatch of massive proportions but if the ball had found its way into his hands late in the game Joel Caine is adamant the Tigers could have snatched victory.

A shock selection by Wayne Pearce for the merged entity's first game, Caine scored three tries and kicked four goals as the match finished in a 24-all draw at Campbelltown Stadium.

As the two teams prepare to meet for the 24th time at Suncorp Stadium on Sunday afternoon, Caine told NRL.com that due to the state of the Campbelltown surface their first encounter should probably have never even gone ahead.

With Round 1 kicking off in the first weekend of February to accommodate the Sydney Olympics later that year, the Tigers were forced to play their opening match at an underprepared Campbelltown Stadium after being denied a chance to play at Stadium Australia. 

"The field was an absolute shocker," Caine recalled. "It was a sand bowl basically and what they did for the purpose of the television cameras was to spray paint the whole field green.

"Maybe I should have been a beach sprinter – maybe that's why it was my best game because we played on sand – I don’t know.

"It was just one of those days where everything clicked into gear. We had the opportunity to win it because I was screaming for the field goal at the end which would have capped it right off.

"We took on a team that eventually won the competition. When you look at their line-up – I don’t think there was a (Broncos) player in that side who didn’t play for their state or country – they were just a top side."

 

Although little was expected of a team put together from two sides who had finished low down on the premiership ladder in 1999, the Tigers shocked everyone to be sitting in second spot – behind the Broncos – through 16 rounds.

But they won just two games from that point on to miss the finals completely as their season was swamped by snow in Canberra and a rampaging Tony Puletua.

"The competition was so tight. We were running second with about four or five weeks to go and we were being spoken about as a genuine [premiership] contender," said Caine, who is now better known for his work with Fox Sports and Sportsbet.

"Then we played a game in the snow in Canberra and Craig Field had a ball charged down on the bell and the Raiders beat us (24-22) which broke our hearts. The following week we got back on track and were smashing the Panthers 31-8 who were also a good side back then. 

"All of a sudden [Penrith forward] Tony Puletua (who scored two tries) just went berserk and they beat us 32-31 after trailing [by 23 points] with 20 minutes to go.  

"So that broke our hearts and Jarrod McCracken broke his neck [three weeks] before that against the Storm so it was all just bad timing for us – everything was starting to fall apart.

"We drew with the [eventual] premiers and had a good couple of tussles against the Roosters who also played in the grand final.

"We were a good side but it just fell apart at the wrong time."

Caine was the only member of the squad to play in all 26 games and finished the year with 224 points and as the club's leading try-scorer (15) but he was the final piece of the Wests Tigers puzzle to fall into place.

Seasoned campaigners such as Terry Hill, John Hopoate, Jarrod McCracken, Matt Seers and Craig Field were all brought in to the new venture and as each name was added, Caine's chances of a spot in the new squad seemed more and more unlikely.

Ironically squeezed out of the Dragons due to their merger with Illawarra in 1999, Caine made the move to Balmain but when it was announced mid-season that they too would be entering into a merger with Western Suburbs, Caine was again on the outside looking in.

"I remember they spent a stack of money and were telling me the whole time they wanted to sign me, but every time I picked up the paper they'd signed another player so positions were running out," said Caine, who scored 526 points in 75 games for the Wests Tigers before retiring at just 26 years of age.

"As it turned out there was only one position left in the full-time squad so they said to me that they'd basically spent all their money and could only offer me less than I was on at Balmain.

"If I was backing myself to make first grade they'd give me 'x' amount of dollars per game. So I accepted the deal knowing that while I had a very low base [salary], I was going to get a princely sum per game if I could crack first grade.

"I then trained my backside off in the pre-season. It was my best off-season that I had and as it turned out I played all 26 games that season so the contract couldn't have worked out better for me.

"I was just a young country boy and then all of a sudden I was playing with players that used to have it in for me.  McCracken had been suspended before as well as Hopoate, Hill, Darren Senter and Luke O'Donnell who went on to break all sorts of suspension records.

"It was a pretty rough and ready side – a kamikaze side I suppose."

Throughout the pre-season Caine had played second fiddle to the more established Matt Seers yet when that historic first Wests Tigers team was read out by coach Wayne Pearce, it was 'Joel Caine' who was the first name to be read out.

"Matt Seers was playing some pretty good football back then and it just appeared he was going to be the fullback. Then [Wayne Pearce] read the team out and I was the fullback and I was completely shocked," said Caine, who played six games at fullback that season and 20 on the wing.

"I was so nervous that whole week but I remember when I was driving to Campbelltown [Stadium] and about half an hour before getting there the nerves just evaporated – I walked into the place knowing that the day was going to be mine."