By Duncan Huntsdale
There’s that moment, normally in childhood, when you find yourself choosing a team or having one chosen for you.
What you don’t know then is that you’ve made an emotional investment that will last a lifetime.
Spare a thought, then, for Wests Tigers supporters, whose emotions have been tested this year like never before as the front entrance of the club becomes a revolving door of players and coaches coming and going.
The Balmain Tigers had some near-misses in the 1980s (beaten in the 1988 and 1989 grand finals), but supporters knew they had loyal players who cared.
Tigers fans were devastated when captain Wayne Pearce was hunched over on the turf after his team had been beaten by Canberra in extra time in that famous 1989 grand final.
They’d been through the lean times with ‘Junior’ and felt he deserved a premiership ring.
I’ve spoken to some long-time Wests Tigers supporters in recent weeks and their passion is fading. They’re still turning up to games but they’re disgruntled.
How can they invest emotionally in a club that has players who don’t want to be there because they’ve signed with another team?
Just this week, five-eighth Mitchell Moses was released by the Tigers and will play for his new club Parramatta on Saturday against Canberra.
Moses was deservedly the club’s player of the year in 2016, but his last performance in a Tigers jumper was arguably his worst.
Also this week, Dragons prop Russell Packer signed a four-year deal with the Tigers.
Club captain Aaron Woods is set to return from a hamstring injury and will be off to the Bulldogs after this season.
It’s hard to keep up with, and falling crowd figures would suggest fans have had enough of it and are voting with their feet.
For supporters to invest in their club (for example, by buying $150 jerseys, signing up as members, attending games) they want to cheer a group of players who belong to them, not one that contains players who are currently at the club but won’t be next year — or even next round.
Last Friday’s game between the Tigers and Souths at the Olympic stadium attracted 12,213 (in a stadium that seats more than 80,000).
At the same venue in round seven, the marquee Easter Monday game between Wests and Parramatta on a sunny afternoon pulled a crowd of 28,294. The corresponding game in 2014 had 50,668.
The captain is the face of the team. A leader on and off the field. A figurehead for the fans. He’s what the club is all about and Woods fitted all of this criteria for Wests Tigers.
He even grew up near Leichhardt Oval and boasted a tattoo of the suburb’s postcode, 2040. At the end of this season he’s off to Belmore to play alongside great mate David Klemmer — perhaps a new tattoo artist will be inking the numbers 2192.
Players cannot be blamed for seeking the best deal, wanting to avoid club unrest or moving to a club where they believe finals football is more likely. Or all of the above.
When it happens in the middle of the season it tests the loyalty of fans.
What does a parent say to the little boy or girl who has a Wests jersey with Tedesco on the back?
‘Don’t worry, we’re in the market for Tui Lolohea, and if we get him soon, he’ll play five-eighth until next year when we move him to full-back and he’ll be just as exciting as Tedesco. Tui can’t get a game for the Warriors now but they won’t release him because he could be handy later in the season. He may be released if the Warriors can get Te Maire Martin from Penrith. We used to have Te Maire Martin but didn’t need him because we had Moses.’
Even seasoned league fans find it hard to get their heads around this stuff.
AFL supporters will tell you their loyalties are tested when favourite sons leave a team, but at least it happens when the season is over, not less than halfway through.
This season the Wests Tigers’ story has had more twists than an Agatha Christie novel and fans would prefer to be reading about it in the off-season.