Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Wests Tigers 2012 Review

Wests Tigers is a joint venture between pioneer clubs Balmain Tigers and Western Suburbs Magpies. They began their life in 2000 under Balmain’s coach the previous year, Wayne Pearce.

The club spent a lot of money on some players considered to be on the decline in their playing career. Despite this, the club managed to be placed at second in the 2000 NRL competition after 17 Rounds, and with just 9 remaining, however a 40-10 loss to Melbourne in Round 15 saw the horrific spear tackle that ended star Tigers signing Jarrad McCracken’s season and career. The Tigers beat the Northern Eagles the following week, but then won just two of the remaining 10 games to finish tenth.

In 2001, Wayne Pearce was replaced as coach by former Western Suburbs player Terry Lamb, in his first Full time NRL coaching role. The Tigers won 4 of their first 7 games, before a mid-season slump saw them winless for 8 straight weeks. They won 5 of the next 8 before losing the last 3 games of the year to finish a dismal 12th.

It was in 2001 that John Hopoate was suspended for ‘inappropriate conduct’. When Lamb was questioned about this, he laughed at it. It was also the year that halfback Craig Field and centre Kevin McGuinness both tested positive to illegal drugs and were suspended for 6 months each. McGuinness was given a reprieve with two months to serve on his suspension after performing a huge amount of volunteer work for the game. Field retired from the NRL after the incident.

In 2002, the Tigers won 4 of their first 6 games before winning just 3 of the remaining 18 games. At the end of 2002, Terry Lamb was relieved of his duties as head coach.

Tim Sheens was coach of the North Queensland Cowboys from 1997 til midway through 2001 when he was sacked. 2002 was the first time he was not coaching a first grade team since he became Penrith’s coach in 1984.

A losing culture and a bad public image at the Tigers had become a major concern for the club and quite remarkably, given his tenure at the Cowboys, Sheens was lured to coach the Wests Tigers in 2003.

Although the Tigers won a meagre 7 of 24 games, a host of fresh new talent was brought into the Tigers team. Players such as Dean Collis, Benji Marshall, Liam Fulton, Bryce Gibbs, Robbie Farah, Dene Halatau, Chris Heighington and Luke Covell all made their debut in 2003 under Sheens.

In 2004, Sheens made some astute purchases, blending experience with the great youth he had brought into the squad the previous year. Most notably were the acquisitions of Pat Richards, Scott Prince, Brett Hodgson, Todd Payten and Scott Sattler. It was a year of rebuilding, however the Tigers fell just one win shy of making the finals that year.

The in-fighting between Wests and Balmain had simmered somewhat, the image of the club had been completely revamped and the team was becoming one that fans loved to watch.

2005 started slowly, but by mid-season the team had finally gelled and went on a remarkable run of form that catapaulted them all the way to premiership glory.

In three years, Tim Sheens achieved what neither Balmain, Wests or the first 3 years of the Wests Tigers failed to achieve in 37 years, a premiership.

2006 saw the Tigers struggle to find any consistency whatsoever as they spent most of the year sitting just outside out the top 8. At seasons end Scott Prince and Anthony Laffranchi left to join the new Gold Coast Titans. Although the team had won a premiership the squad itself was very inexperienced. The average age was just under 24 years old, and only one player was over the age of 28, John  Skandalis (30 years old).

With this very talented group of youngsters, which now boasted Bronson Harrison, Chris Lawrence and Isaac DeGois, it seemed that the team was only going to improve.

Seasons 2007, 2008 and 2009 saw the Tigers finish 9th, 10th and 9th respectively. The teams’ failure to go one win better to make the finals was becoming frustrating. At first it was put down to the inexperience of youth, but by 2009, those players had now played at least 4 seasons of NRL football.

In 2009, English test back rower Gareth Ellis made his debut for the Tigers. In 2010, dual international winger Lote Tuqiri also joined the club. The players Sheens had brought through in his first three years were now experienced, bigger and better and now joined by International quality players.

2010 also saw the addition of Steve Folkes to the coaching ranks, alongside fellow former first grade coach Royce Simmons. The wealth of knowledge and quality as the club was a riches of which the clubs and its predecessors had not seen in almost two decades.

2010 saw the Tigers return to the finals arena. They finished third before going down valiantly to eventual premiers St.George-Illawarra  in the Grand Final qualifier. Benji Marshall was awarded the Golden Boot award at season end, for being the greatest player in the world that year. Defence coach Royce Simmons accepted a position as head coach for English Superleague heavyweights St Helens.

2011 the Tigers were expected to achieve similar results, which they almost perfectly matched. They finished fourth and in the first week of the finals, they reversed the result against the Dragons from the previous year before losing on the full time siren to eventual grand finalists Warriors the following week.

At the beginning of 2012, the Tigers were hotly tipped to be the favourites to win the premiership. The suggestions were valid for many pundits given the vast improvement of the Tigers in the previous two seasons. However what happened in 2012 can only be described as an unmitigated disaster which raised many questions people had begun to ask more frequently as far back as 2006.

The Tigers team of 2006 was a young and enthusiastic side, however they lacked experience. The Tigers team of 2012 had plenty of experience and most of the players were at an age where careers generally are at their peak.

Herein lies a detailed and thorough analysis as to some of the issues, many of which are recurring issues, and almost all are attached to a culture that coach Tim Sheens has created, a culture much different to the one he brought to the club when he arrived a decade ago.

Pre 2012

Retention and recruitment were the biggest issues that plagued the club during the mid-season of 2011. The club had extended Bryce Gibbs’ contract by another 3 years in the 2011 off-season. Just four months later he was released from his contract along with promising young prop Andrew Fifita, who were both signed by Cronulla.
This news lead to talks that fellow players Chris Heighington, Beau Ryan and Liam Fulton were also being shopped around to other clubs, all amidst news that the club was trying to lure Melbourne Storm and Kiwi test forward Adam Blair to the club on a deal rumoured to be worth half a million dollars per year. This news divided a lot of Tigers fans. Fans of clubs will always show a deeper connection with players who came through the junior ranks and had always remained loyal to the club, so the loss of Gibbs, especially after he was re-signed only months before his release sapped a large amount of confidence the fans had in the Tigers board regarding their professionalism and knowledge of how to run the club.

It was also around the time of Gibbs’ and Fifita’s releases being made public that young utility Tim Moltzen was announced to have signed a three year deal with the Dragons, starting in 2012. During the 2011 off-season, an ugly fight over Moltzen’s contract was reversed, keeping him at the Tigers to see out the last year of his contract. This bitter dispute, after the handling of loyal clubman Gibbs saw the public and media’s perception of the Tigers beginning to turn from its largely positive tone of the previous years under Sheens.

The 2011 off-season also saw young half Robert Lui arrested for the second time in two years over allegations of him assaulting his girlfriend. The club stood by Lui the first time he was arrested, which also added to the change of perception people displayed towards the Tigers. In 2011 though, the club sacked him.

It was the first off-season the Tigers had with such negative press in Sheens’ time at the club.

2012 Pre-Season

The sacking of Lui, albeit quite early in the offseason, meant that the Tigers had to create a new halves combination for 2012. The obvious choice was to go with Tim Moltzen at halfback, given his great success partnering with Benji Marshall in the halves.

It also meant that one of the Tigers rookie front rowers would have to step up and become a full time starter in 2012. Aaron Woods put his hand up.

While Gibbs loss dominated a lot of concerns for Tigers fans, it was the first time they had ever had 5 current test players all in the forward pack in the same season (Galloway, Farah, Blair, Ellis and Heighington), with the backs boasting test players (current and former) in Matt Utai, Chris Lawrence, Lote Tuqiri and Benji Marshall.

There was clearly no lack of experience or quality in the squad. The only concern was depth.

From the 2011 squad, Tigers had lost Geoff Daniela (centre), Andrew Fifita (prop), Mark Flanagan (Back row), Bryce Gibbs (prop), Robert Lui (halfback), Wade McKinnon (fullback) and Todd Payten (prop, back row).

Tragically, the Tigers had also lost promising young back rower Simon Dwyer with a nerve injury in his back, which he is still recovering from.

To cover these losses, the Tigers brought Matthew Bell (Back row, prop), Adam Blair (back row), Tom Humble (fullback, halfback) and Joel Reddy (Centre).

2012 Season

Injuries: Injuries are unavoidable for all club and they can never be avoided nor prepared for. Therefore they should not be used as an excuse. Every club is given a squad size of 25 players so as to help cover most injuries when they inevitably arise. It is the selection of this squad that is of utmost importance.

Lote Tuqiri was the only player still injured prior to the start of the NRL season. He returned in Round 5, playing every game until an injury in Round 20 ended his season.

In Round 1, debutant fullback James Tedesco suffered a knee injury which ended his season tragically. Keith Galloway was also injured during the Round 1 clash and didn’t return until Round 6. He missed just 2 games for the rest of the season, in Rounds 20 and 21.

Matt Utai was injured in Round 2 and returned to the field in Round 11, missing just one game after that in Round 18.

Gareth Ellis missed Round 3, returned for Round4 and injuring himself in Round 5. He didn’t return until Round 20.

Robbie Farah was suspended for 2 games (Rounds 4 and 5) and missed Rounds 11, 14 and 18 due to Origin commitments and missed Round 15 after the tragic passing of his mother. A Hand injury in Round 24 saw him miss the last two games of the year.

Chris Heighington suffered an injury in Round 6, which saw him miss Rounds 7 to 11. He played in every game from Round 12 til the end of the season.

Chris Lawrence suffered an injury in Round 20, which saw him on the sideline for 4 weeks before returning in Round 25.

These were the major injury issues to hit the Tigers players in 2012.

During the season the Tigers released Mitch Brown (wing, centre, fullback) and signed Ray Cashmere (prop) and Masada Iosefa (hooker).

Covering of absences in the spine (Fullback, five-eighth, halfback, hooker):

Tedesco (Fullback) – In Round 2, new recruit Tom Humble started at fullback and retained the position for Round 3. He was then replaced by halfback Tim Moltzen from Rounds 4 to 12, 15 and 16, 19, 22-24 and 26. Beau Ryan replaced Moltzen in Rounds 14, 18, 20, 21 and 25.

Halfback - Because Moltzen had shifted from halfback to Fullback, it left a vacancy in the halfback position. This was filled by: Jacob Miller (Round 4), Tom Humble (Rounds 5 to 8), Benji Marshall (Rounds 9-20 and 22-26) and Robbie Farah (Round 21).

Five-Eighth - Because Benji Marshall had shifted from five-eighth to halfback, it left a vacancy at five-eighth. This was covered by: Chris Lawrence (Rounds 9, 11 and 26), Blake Ayshford (Rounds 12, 15 and 16), Curtis Sironen (Rounds 13, 14, 16, 18 and 19), Liam Fulton (Rounds 22 to 24) and Tim Moltzen (Round 25).

When centres Chris Lawrence and Blake Ayshford played at five-eighth, their vacant centre positions were filled by Joel Reddy (Rounds 9 and 11) and Beau Ryan (Rounds 12, 15, 16 and 26)

Farah (Hooker) – Liam Fulton replaced Farah at Hooker in Rounds 4, 5 and 25. Tom Humble played as hooker in Rounds 11 and 14. New recruit Masada Iosefa played at hooker in Rounds 15, 21 and 26.

The reshuffling of positions that took place not just on the team sheet, but during games as well, resulted in a confused defensive line and an incompatible attacking structure. A large majority of these changes were unnecessary and could have been filled more effectively by specialised players in the respective positions, thus having minimal impact on the teams’ cohesion, games plans and structures in defence and attack.

In 2012, The Wests Tigers used more players at Five-Eighth and at Halfback than any other club. This is concerning enough, but even more so when you consider that there was only one injury to one of those players, Curtis Sironen, who was the 7th player to get a run in the halves, In Round 13.

The player who trained all off-season at halfback, Tim Moltzen, only played 3 games at halfback. Tedesco’s Round 1 injury saw Humble play at Fullback before being relegated to the bench, replaced by Moltzen. To add to the absurdity of this move, was the selection of a specialist fullback in Sean Meaney, who sat on the bench for almost the entirety of the games, before being cut, never to return.

Considering that Ryan had played considerably well at Fullback as a replacement the previous year and Sean Meaney, who also had some limited first grade experience over the two previous seasons, and is a specialist fullback, were both overlooked and replaced by the only player to have trained all off-season at halfback, was not only risky, but rendered an entire off-season pointless along with all set plays, game plans and offence structures.

In Farah’s absence, Liam Fulton played at Hooker. Fulton had only played at hooker twice since his debut, the last time was in 2010. Given that youngster Pat Politoni had trained with the senior squad and even played in a trial game barely more than a month prior, it seemed obvious to replace a hooker with a hooker. Tom Humble was the next to replace Farah at Hooker. Humble had never played at hooker in the NRL before. On the last two of those occasions, specialist hooker Masada Iosefa was on the bench. Iosefa was also on the bench when Fulton returned to the hooking duties in Round 25.

Given the great emphasis Sheens placed on junior talent when he first arrived at the club, he has seemingly turned his back on it, only bring them in when his hand is forced through injuries, his own positional switches of players out of their specialist positions and by the clubs poor retention and purchasing strategies which, leading into the 2012 season, decimated the depth for the blind pursuit of one marquee player, Adam Blair.

Blair came from a club where every player is given strict instructions and very definitive directions aimed at maximising each players strength and hiding their weaknesses. This strategy worked superbly for Blair at Melbourne. However at the Wests Tigers he was given free reign and left to his own devices. He was out of place and essentially, entirely ineffective. While many commentators suggested he just needed time to fit into the structure at the club, which may have been very true, what wasn’t addressed was his low work rate, especially during the weeks when Gareth Ellis, arguably the Tigers best player for the past 3 straight seasons, was out due to injury.  Blair did change this very late in the season, but the fact that there were no attempts made to try and harness his strengths, left the team struggling up front and struggling to create opportunities off the back of the forwards.

Because the halves were completely unsettled for the last 21 games of the year, meant that the outside backs struggled to find themselves with much opportunity to capitalise on good field position. This consequently lead to a drop in confidence and form for Lawrence and Ayshford.

Coupled with both Ayshford and Lawrence being shifted during games into the back row at the start of the year to accommodate Joel Reddy when he came on as a replacement, and their time in the halves, they had little chance to stay focussed on their specialist roles as centres.

Because the centres were being moved around and not getting good ball, it meant the only way the wingers were given scoring opportunities were via kicks.

Poor depth in the front row saw young prop Aaron Woods and the injury dogged Keith Galloway play longer minutes each week than most props would, Woods especially regularly exceeded an hour per game on the field. For such a young player in such a physically demanding role upon which so much of our attack relies upon, this was an immense task. Thankfully it was one that Woods rose to and almost earned himself Origin selection.

The Tigers were slow starters most of the year and fast finishers. In the first 20 minutes of games this year, the Tigers scored just 15 tries and conceded 24.  In the finals 10 minutes of games, they scored 19 tries and conceded 15. Giving away early leads meant the Tigers had to play a lot of risky catch up football, removing the element of building and sustaining pressure. Tigers lead at Half Time in 10 of their 24 games, winning just 6 of those games. They trailed at Half Time 12 times, Winning 5 times.

The excuse of injuries is a tired one and also one which should not be entertained. All clubs suffer injuries throughout the year as well as losing players through suspension and representative duties. It’s a fact of life in the NRL.

In 2012 the Tigers used 29 Players. Comparing this to the three years they made the finals, they used 30 players in 2011; 31 players in 2010 and 26 players in 2005. In all three years combined Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah both missed just 2 games. Farah played all his games in that time at Hooker bar 1, which he played at halfback. Marshall played all his games in that time at five-eighth bar 4, which were also at halfback.

Marshall has won 59.23% of his games when at five-eighth and 45.23% of his games at halfback. Farah has won 56.69% of his games when at hooker and 35.71% of his games at halfback.

The numbers of times since their debuts that Marshall has played at five-eighth and Farah at Hooker in the same game is 104. They have won 64 of those games at a success rate of 61.54%.

It is pretty clear where both perform at their best and how much that helps the Tigers to win.

So it seems absurd to have them play anywhere else in the team, yet this year their respective positions as well as the players themselves were moved around for no genuine reason, such as injury or suspension.

Poor performing players very rarely, if at all, are dropped to lower grades for poor performances, similarly, lower grade players in good form are not given adequate chances anymore either. This system creates a comfortable feel, players knowing that a poor performance will not see them lose their side in the team. Even though players will ultimately feel guilty or disappointed in their performances, sometimes bring relegated to lower grades against lesser opponents is enough to get a players confidence and form back. However constantly picking them when their form is sliding only compounds the issues and makes it so much harder for the player to get that confidence back.

This system breeds complacency. Complacency is a mindset and it rots to the core very quickly.

The only way to overcome this is to force the coach to drastically change his style and behaviours, or to change the coach.

These issues are not new to 2012. Amidst the success of the previous two years, we have still seen these issues crop up from time to time, even more prominently in 2006-2009.

Tim Sheens is a great coach in respects to getting a struggling team back on track and moving in the right direction. But he is not a long term coach and it is abundantly clear that for the benefit of Sheens and Wests Tigers, he needs to move on and take on a new role and new challenge where he will undoubtedly be a great success.

Staying at the Wests Tigers making the same mistakes is only going to damage his credentials and reputation and harm his prospects of obtaining a full time coaching role elsewhere in the future.

He needs to move on because currently his performance is having a detrimental effect on the team and could see the club lose talented local juniors, disgruntled with not getting a chance in first grade.

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