Wests Tigers 2016 season review
A saga that stretched beyond 12 months finally found its resolution on the eve of what would be the Wests Tigers' final game of the season and how the team evolves in the post-Robbie Farah era will define whether the pain was worth the gain.
Coach Jason Taylor's desire to hand the playmaking reins to young halves Mitchell Moses and Luke Brooks saw him relegate Blues No.9 Farah to reserve grade in Round 20 and his only NRL appearance after that was a Leichhardt Oval farewell at half-time in Round 26.
Following Farah's sacking the Tigers went on a three-game winning streak (Dragons, Eels, Cowboys) that catapulted them back into the finals frame, mainly on the back of five-eighth Moses who revelled in the additional responsibility.
Two wins to start the season were followed by six successive losses but from there the Tigers won nine of their next 15 games to set up one last shot at a top eight finish against the Raiders in Round 26.
A disastrous first half where they trailed 30-4 extinguished that hope but despite just missing the finals Taylor gave his side an "absolute pass mark" for their season.
"We slowly but surely started playing a more controlled, more composed brand of footy that's going to get us to the semi-finals down the track," was Taylor's final assessment.
The addition of Elijah Taylor mid-year had an immediate influence on the Tigers' attack not to mention the immense amount of tackling he gets through on a weekly basis.
The broken jaw suffered by fullback James Tedesco in Round 23 was untimely but a Moses match-winner against the Warriors in Round 25 kept their season alive for at least one more week.
The hooking conundrum hasn't completely been solved with the departure of Farah with the club losing both Dene Halatau (retirement) and Manaia Cherrington (Sharks). Australian Schoolboys representative Jacob Liddle committed for an extra two seasons in June and is a player that club has high hopes for and will deputise for the experienced Matt Ballin to start 2017.
Where they excelled: There are few statistical categories in which the Tigers excelled in 2016 but their back five regularly did so and finished the year with 53 of the 88 tries scored by the team. Again James Tedesco had an injury-interrupted season but scored 14 tries in 17 games and earned his first Origin jersey while David Nofoaluma (14) and Kevin Naiqama (11) missed only one game each in their best seasons in the NRL to date. Jordan Rankin made a successful return from the UK and Tim Simona scored seven tries and was a constant threat on the left edge.
Where they struggled: It's been his pet project since taking over last season but with the Tigers conceding six more tries in 2016 than they did last season coach Jason Taylor has some work still to do. Only the Knights conceded more four-pointers than the Tigers' 105 with their record against the Raiders alone reading 112-16 from their two clashes. They ranked fourth for the most number of missed tackles (729) and 15th in total runs and total run metres, showing they struggled to win the territory battle more often than not. It's a team on the up but they're not there yet.
Missing in action: He was a big part of Taylor's plan to phase Farah out of the first grade squad but a second straight knee injury kept Matt Ballin to just 56 minutes of game-time in 2016. Coming off an ACL injury that ended his time at Manly last year, Ballin played four minutes against the Knights in Round 11 before being concussed and then suffered a further knee injury a week later against Brisbane that required season-ending surgery. The good news? The Tigers won both games in which Ballin played. The other player who was rarely sighted was Curtis Sironen who despite playing for City Origin this year was troubled by hamstring and foot injuries and played just one NRL game after Round 10.
Turning point: By dropping Farah in Round 20 Taylor brought about a whole new level of focus onto the club but the three wins that followed not only saw the heat of the story dissipate significantly but give hope to those who saw no future without Robbie. Ten days prior he had been the best hooker available for New South Wales but Taylor's conviction that the team was better off without him finally came to a head and the team moved on. With Farah's release now finalised Taylor has the capacity to implement his plan in its entirety.
Hold your head high: He may miss plenty of tackles and make more than his share of errors but they can both be attributed to Mitchell Moses's absolute willingness to be involved in every play possible at either end of the field. The back-half of the season was a coming out party for Moses who took control of the Tigers' fortunes and even in the absence of James Tedesco almost dragged them single-handedly into the finals series. He finished the year with 18 try assists, 15 line breaks and as the club's top point-scorer and in the process stamped himself as the man to lead the next generation of success for the Tigers.
2017 crystal ball: Although there are a number of players exiting there have been no additions to the roster for 2017 since the mid-season pick-up of Elijah Taylor. Ironically the hooking stocks are worryingly low and they could use a top-class back-rower to add some starch in defence on the edges. If Moses, Brooks and Tedesco play full seasons, the Tigers will once again push for a place in the bottom half of the top eight.
Conclusion: Many people's favourites for the wooden spoon given the drama surrounding Robbie Farah, the Wests Tigers exceeded expectations in 2016. Two losses to the Titans hurt as did a two-point loss to the Knights in Round 6, Newcastle's sole victory of the entire year. Time will tell whether this was an opportunity lost or a major step in the right direction.
Home Record: 6-6
Away Record: 5-7
Longest Winning Streak: 3 (Round 20-22)
Longest Losing Streak: 6 (Round 3-8)
Players Used: 30
Tries Scored: 88
Tries Conceded: 105