SO NEAR, YET SO FARAH AWAY

A year of high drama left the im­prov­ing Tigers on the brink of the fi­nals

Rugby League Week - - Rlw 2016 Annual - BY SHAYNE BUGDEN

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.

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