As part of the NRL.com series reviewing each club's 2018 season, Peter Jolly looks at how the Wests Tigers defied expectations to come within a whisker of a surprise playoff appearance.
Wests Tigers will look back on season 2018 with bittersweet memories. The Tigers surprised many with wins over title contenders the Roosters and Melbourne (twice) early in the season and on the back of the league's best defensive record were sitting in the top four throughout the opening seven rounds. But they struggled to keep their brilliant early season form up, slumping to eight losses in 10 matches.
The club did get a second wind late in the year, which was helped by the mid-season signings of Robbie Farah (Souths) and Moses Mbye (Bulldogs).
Dropping just three matches on the run home, the Tigers had a sniff of playing finals football but just could not get over the line, finishing six points behind the eighth-placed Warriors.
Luke Brooks was named Wests Tigers' player of the year earlier this week, and for good reason. Partnering with Benji Marshall in the halves, he achieved career-high season totals in run metres, forced drop-outs, offloads and more. He finished the year with five tries, 10 try assists and 15 line-break assists to his name.
It was an extended "moment" that defined their season - the mid-season slump that ended up costing them dearly and leaving them chasing the leaders. At a time when the teams in the top eight were consistently winning, those costly slip-ups left the team wondering what could have been.
Just as the team was regaining form, the Tigers were thrust into the coaching saga that involved the sacking of Anthony Griffin by the Panthers. Cleary was linked to a return to Penrith after earlier in the year declaring he one day wanted to work with his son Nathan, with the Panthers enquiring about getting him back on board. Usually cool and composed, Cleary snapped back, showing the toll the story had on him personally.
"I've been very disappointed with the amount of misinformation surrounding myself and my family this week," Cleary told reporters. "When I was approached by the Panthers initially I had no idea it was about coaching their club. I respect the contract I have with the Tigers and I intend to honour this contract."
The club ended up with a coaching change after all, with Michael Maguire agreeing to terms on October 25 to take over for the 2019 season. Cleary now appears set to have a second stint in charge of the Panthers.
The win over the then ladder-leading Souths in round 19 was a major victory. Not only did it boost morale and set up the late season charge towards the finals, but it was Robbie Farah's 250th match – and there was a sense that win meant a lot to the team.
Cleary was left scratching his head trying to find answers after the 48-12 loss to the Raiders in Campbelltown in round 15 – their worst performance of the year. Despite a good defensive record, the Tigers had a mental lapse, conceding seven second-half tries in 35 minutes as Canberra piled on 44 unanswered points.
The joint venture has been quiet on the signings front with the only gain announced coming in the form of Roosters centre Paul Momirovski on a two-year deal, while losing Tim Grant, Tuimoala Lolohea, Kevin Naiqama, Bayley Sironen, Sauaso Sue and Malakai Watene- Zelezniak.
Consistency is the key – but they need to continue the form they showed at the start and the end of this season, without the major slumps. Robbie Farah and Benji Marshall have re-signed and the club will keep most of its senior squad, so they should show some improvement – but then again there are many other teams in the same position and there are only eight places in the finals. New coach Maguire will be hoping to guide the club back into the finals.