From habitual losers, Ivan Cleary has shown Wests Tigers how to win again
Paul Kent, The Daily Telegraph
March 12, 2018 10:13pm
IN his early racing days Seabiscuit, the little American racehorse not much bigger than a pony, was trained to lose.
He was tough and stubborn and too difficult to deal with and so his trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons thought his greater value was as a training partner for other, better performing horses.
Every time Seabiscuit was about to run down his training partner in trackwork his jockey pulled him, forcing him to run second. It built the confidence of the other horse. And it might have explained his obstinance.
Naturally, when Seabiscuit raced he did he was stubborn to the end and did what he was taught to do, which was to lose.
Seabiscuit was sold and moved on to another trainer, Tom Smith, who recognised the heart and broken soul inside his racehorse.
Horses were herd animals, Smith knew. Taught to follow other horses, they will follow other horses.
Footballers are herd animals too. Left to choice, they will eventually fall into suit with each other and begin to think alike.
Within clubs, they call it culture.
Ivan Cleary recognised as much last year when he took the job of turning the Tigers around.
The Tigers have not made the finals since 2011.
Since then the club has become a comedy of poor governance, of player led revolts, boardroom instability and coaches sacked midterm.
It finally settled down when Cleary arrived last season.
The coach is measured and calm. His demeanour underpins his coaching philosophy.
Parachuted in last year with the season already five games old, Cleary got through the rest of the season as best he could before he could get an entire off-season with them.
Then the work began.
Like the horse trainer Smith, Cleary had to change the psychology of his team.
Winning is contagious, as is losing. And the Tigers had become far too comfortable with losing.
When Smith took over training Seabiscuit he realised a circuit breaker was necessary and so he changed the roles. He pushed the training horse out in front to set a pace and he let Seabiscuit get a sniff before allowing the jockey to run over them at the post.
Seabiscuit got used to winning, and that was all it took.
Cleary needed to needed his players to learn how to win again.
He needed to get their competitive spirit firing.
With a training pony unavailable, Cleary turned every training session into contests. He pitted the players against each other.
“Any challenges we had,” Benji Marshall told Triple M On Sunday, “when we split into two teams and played against each other, we’d score every drill.
“And if you lost, the losing team had to, straight away at the end of training, when the rest of the team finishes, go and get punished by Ronny Palmer.”
The Tigers began competing with each other. They had incentive.
They found the extra efforts necessary to win the contest.
It helped that competitors like Josh Reynolds, Russell Packer, Ben Matulino and Marshall, fresh blood, were brought to the club.
The Tigers had their circuit breaker.
And so Saturday afternoon they went out against the Sydney Roosters as the biggest underdogs of the opening round.
Few gave them a chance of victory.
The Roosters opened the season as premiership favourites and the only conversation the Tigers were in was in the wooden spoon market.
And as the game wore on the Tigers trailed 8-4 gallantly hanging in. But this time something was different.
“We were down by four points and I actually felt the team lift off the back of things we did in the pre-season,” Marshall said.
Like Seabiscuit, the Tigers had a sniff for battle and found they enjoyed it.
They scored in the final two minutes to change the entire outlook for the season.
“Winning becomes a habit,” Marshall said, “but losing becomes a habit and I think we needed to break that.”