SO NEAR, YET SO FARAH AWAY
A year of high drama left the improving Tigers on the brink of the finals
THE MOST ENDURING IMAGE OF WESTS TIGERS’ season came in round 20 – but it didn’t happen in an NRL game. On a brilliant Saturday afternoon at Leichhardt Oval, Robbie Farah ran out for the club’s NSW Cup side and was mobbed by a throng fans as he came off the field, knowing he’d played his last first-grade game for his beloved team. The hooker’s relationship with coach Jason Taylor had become a festering boil and in many ways, it was lanced that day. No single incident better illustrated how hell-bent JT was on orchestrating change at the club – not just in their style of football, but in the balance of power in the team.
Taylor told all and sundry he dropped Farah because he didn’t provide enough ball to halves Mitchell Moses and Luke Brooks. And while the stats say there’s an element of truth in that, nobody believed it was the whole truth. The pair had a long-running feud – and the coach won.
Their soap opera took the focus away from Taylor’s continuing crusade to make the Tigers play a more structured, grinding style of footy – ideally one that will stop them leaking a shocking amount of points without blunting one of the NRL’s most lethal attacks.
Had the club won their last game, they would’ve made the eight – a strong turnaround for a team that finished second-last in 2015. Remarkably, they allowed more points this year (607) than in their previous campaign (562) – but veteran Chris Lawrence believes the “JT way” is taking hold.
Asked if they’re starting to display those grinding qualities while maintaining their attacking mojo, he answers, “Definitely, and I think it’s more picking the right times to use that flair.
“I think we failed to do that too often sometimes, and we did it against sides that you really have to earn the right and wear down first before you can play that razzledazzle football.
“We learnt to play to that style throughout the year. We started the year trying to do that and we went away from it. I think we only won two of our first eight games and we were on the back foot straight away, but we started to learn.”
A quick look at their results lends credence to Lawrence’s take.
There are shockers in there – such as being the only team to lose to Newcastle all year, the 60-6 and 52-10 demolitions by the Raiders, the 40-10 whacking in Penrith in round 24, and lopsided losses to the Dogs in round 10 and Chooks in round 13. But they took the Storm down to the wire in two close losses, ground out a 19-18 win in Brisbane, and most impressively, comprehensively out-muscled the Cowboys 26-14 at Leichhardt in round 22.
Fans have every right to be frustrated – not because the team lacks quality, but because they tease you with it one week, then drop off a defensive cliff the next.
“We had a lot of things go against us this year both on and off the field but we stuck together and we can see that we’re not far off,” Lawrence argues.
“I suppose that probably shows in where we are on the ladder – it’s probably a true indication, to be honest. We’re not there yet, in terms of being a semi-final team, and there were a couple of games throughout the year where we just dropped off our standards and let some big scorelines go. But we’re not far off being that consistent footy team that can match it with the top teams week in, week out and play some finals footy.”
For that to happen they’ll need their youngsters to keep delivering, much as Mitchell Moses did in 2016. The pivot came of age, stamping himself as the undisputed go-to man in the halves with regular game-turning efforts – although his defence remains a major worry. No.7 Luke Brooks was average, however – as illustrated by the fact that when he was out with a bad knee in August, the team didn’t miss a beat.
A hole looms at dummy half due to the departures of Farah and Dene Halatau, but highly rated rake Jacob Liddle, 19, takes some of the sting out of that. And when asked to spotlight their boom rookie for 2016, Lawrence nominates another youngster who’ll make a difference to the pack in years to come.
“Josh Aloiai – I think he played every game this year,” the veteran says of the Tigers prop/back-rower. “That’s massive for a young forward.
“The guys who’ve recently come in [to the NRL] have now played three/ four years, and probably in their first year or two were thrown in at the deep end when they weren’t ready, but that experience is going to help. They’ve matured now.”
Tigers fans will be hoping that by finals time next year, Lawrence will be able to say that about the team as a whole.
TURNING BACK THE CLOCK Chris Lawrence had his best season in years as the Tigers went within an ace of playing finals footy for the first time since 2011. Inset: Mitch Moses delivered on his huge potential, but his defence is still a work in progress.