Ivan's Penrith blueprint turned Tigers around: Taylor
Wests Tigers lock Elijah Taylor says there are plenty of similarities between his current club's surprise 6-4 start to 2018 and the way coach Ivan Cleary elevated Penrith – this week's opponents – to some impressive finishes when he was at the Panthers.
Taylor has now played under Cleary at three clubs – the Warriors, Panthers and Wests Tigers – and was at the foot of the mountains when Cleary oversaw the departures of big names and local favourites Michael Jennings, Luke Lewis, Lachlan Coote and Michael Gordon in 2012-13.
There are shades of the Tigers parting way with their own stars like James Tedesco, Aaron Woods and Mitch Moses last year.
The Panthers in 2014 surged to a remarkable fourth-placed finish and upset minor premiers the Roosters in the first week of the finals before narrowly going down to Canterbury in the grand final qualifier.
That was despite a catastrophic injury toll with stars Peter Wallace, Tyrone Peachey, Bryce Cartwright and Kevin Kingston going down with season-ending injuries among other less serious injury woes.
"[It's about] the retention and recruitment of players, who he's brought in, who he's let go. He's let go of some big names," Taylor told NRL.com of the club's current culture and their re-entry to the winners' circle last week after a mini-slump.
"He had to do the same at Penrith with Luke Lewis, Michael Jennings, Michael Gordon, Lachlan Coote. He's made some tough decisions but he's putting together a team where he feels everybody will buy in and do what he wants and it's good to see it's happening now," Taylor added.
Cleary continued that policy this week, dropping his round 10 man of the match Mahe Fonua for being late to training. The policy that commitment and a team-first attitude trumps all was on show right from round one when David Nofoaluma was bumped to reserve grade and Tui Lolohea put on notice.
Meanwhile, lesser-known players like Corey Thompson, Esan Marsters, Alex Twal, Matt Eisenhuth and Michael Chee-Kam are either establishing themselves as genuine first graders or producing career-best form.
"When I first went to Penrith we didn't have the big name players but we all ripped in for each other and all turned up for each other in defence," Taylor recalled.
"We managed to get to a couple of finals series. That's the blueprint, it's something that's working for us. The way we play our football, it's not flash, it's all hard work, it's all scramble D. Our games are pretty scrappy sometimes and it's all down to the wire."
The important thing in snapping a three-game losing streak against the Cowboys at Leichhardt last week was a return to what had been working over the opening six rounds. And the return of Russell Packer didn't hurt either.
"We went away from what works for us [in the loss to] the Warriors [the week before]," he said.
"The first five rounds we were turning up for each other defensively scrambling hard for each other and that kind of went away in the Parramatta and Warriors games. Russell Packer coming back helped as well. We know what works for us but we've got to bring it every week."
Taylor, like Cleary, will see plenty of familiar faces this Thursday night – incluiding the coach's son Nathan, who Taylor remembers as a ball boy back at the Warriors.
"It's always good to play against your old friends, friends you spent your career with and played with and used to be in the trenches with some of them in the hard times, you build those good relationships," he said.
"It's good to see [Nathan] back on the field, young kid, great talent. We've got to focus more on what he brings to the table.
"His show and go, running ability with the football, his kicking game and he's a strong defender as well. Their forward pack runs hard - Reagan Campbell-Gillard, James Fish, big Viliame [Kikau] on the edge. It's going to be a very physical game against Penrith."
The always-calm coach hadn't been any different this week despite a rare chance to coach against his son.
"Ivan doesn't give too much away," Taylor smiled.
"It's good he's dealt with that the way that he's wanted to but he's just treating it as another game. We're preparing for another team. That's all he can do at the moment."