As a Wests Tigers fan, this season has been a revelation, with the team far exceeding expectations and competing for a top-eight or even top-four spot.
Ivan Cleary has done brilliantly to turn a squad of misfits into a well oiled defensive unit which is currently third for least points conceded.
While I am very excited for the team, it is crucial that we continue to improve and continue to fix issues with our game, so for this article I will focus on an area that has played a key role in our losses this season: our defence.
Now before you keyboard warriors come at me with, “They have the third-best defensive record of the season,” let me tell you: I know. But my issue isn’t that they are poor defensively, in fact it is quite the opposite – I believe that the Tigers have been too good in defence and are neglecting their attacking play.
The old mantra that titles are built on the back of good defence comes to mind, but the way the Tigers have set up to play is ineffective against the good teams, as has been demonstrated in games against the Warriors and Panthers.
This seasons results can be broken into three brackets: comfortable victories, as again Manly and the Eels; close games, as against the Knights, Storm, Broncos, Roosters and Cowboys; and significant losses, as against the Warriors and the Panthers. I leave out the second game against Parramatta due to it being a tactical anomaly as both teams were well off the pace and playing poorly.
An analysis of how those games went down demonstrates both the effectiveness and flaws in Cleary’s gameplan. In every game the Tigers have gone out and tried to grind down their opponents, not giving them anything defensively and chipping away slowly in attack. The effectiveness of this strategy was shown in the Manly game, as the Tigers ended with over 60 per cent of possesion in what was an absolute domination.
The Tigers gave them nothing in defence and ground away in attack in order to force them to work hard and tire. This was also seen in the first 30 minutes of the game against the Cowboys as the Tigers weathered significant attacking field position from the Cowboys to score against the run of play and change the momentum of the game.
What went wrong? While I only watched the highlights of the Warriors game, I watched the full loss to the Panthers and, like many supporters, was frustrated. This game exposed the flaws in Cleary’s system, as the Tigers never looked a danger in attack.
Unlike against the Cowboys, the Tigers had good possesion early against the Panthers but were unable to capitalise. The Panthers defended effectively and most notably rushed up and smothered players before they could move the ball around, preventing them from ever looking to threaten.
Following the sin-binning of Trent Merrin, the Tigers were expected to push on, but the Panthers took control of the game and scored two tries in the space of ten minutes. While the tries were poor, the response was even poorer, as the Tigers didn’t look to threaten at all for the rest of the game.
The Panthers took advantage of their attacking weakness and locked them down in their own half for the whole second half. Furthermore, the constant battling for the Tigers against the comfortable Panthers wore down their stamina, leading to many simple second-half errors for the Tigers.
It looked like it was on a loop: Tigers received the ball within their own ten, worked it out barely to the 40 and kicked to the fullback, who gets tackled on the 30-metre line. Five tackles later and Cleary is kicking from the 30 and the Tigers are restarting play within their own ten again.
Our lack of penetration meant no chance of breaking the cycle, and the 16-2 scoreline in no way reflected the complete control Penrith had over the game.
So what’s the fix? There are a few issues Cleary has to address, but the most glaringly obvious is selection. We played a particularly defensive squad against Penrith with the defensively brilliant but poor-in-attack Elijah Taylor at hooker. This was furthered by Michael Chee-Kam, who has been great off the bench, in centre instead of an actual specialist centre.
Finally – and it pains me to say this – Robbie Rochow is a tackle machine who can play 80 minutes but who doesn’t offer much in attack. While I’m not advocating for him to be dropped – he’s been one of my favourite players this season – the number of defensive players in the team must be considered in selection, and it would make sense to start someone like Jacob Liddle in hooker, who may be a weaker defender and less experienced but will offer much more in attack than his predecessors.
Finally, while I love him, Benji Marshall is not justifying his selection. His kicking game has been very poor and has made it difficult for us to keep any consistent pressure in the last few games. Furthermore, his organisation of the back line has been very poor, he has had very poor attacking options in the attacking 20 – with most going through Luke Brooks and his running game has left a lot to be desired.
In conclusion, Cleary has done an extremely good job at the Tigers and has turned us into a force to be reckoned with this year. However, he must ensure that we don’t focus on defending at the expense of our attack, as will continually struggle to close out games against mid-table teams, as we did agains the Broncos and the Knights games and will be comfortably beaten by the top teams.
Cleary must ensure he picks the right blend of players to play out his defensive tactics while still offering threatening attacking play to build of the defence. If he can do that, the Tigers will be a real force in the competition this year.