How the West Tigers’ defence is losing them games

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.

The close games would have been lost and what would the record be then? Warriors and panthers played like top 4 sides, we didn’t and shouldn’t. Most pundits had us for the spoon at the beginning of the year, we are playing like a top 8 team.

Other points
It’s hard to build attack with no completions and possessions through errors
Mck played centre as Fonua and Kev unavailable
Benji as bought as backup and needs a break, Reynolds is injured
80 min players free up interchanges for us with packer Twal and mad mats able to stay fresh. But their replacements are not quite there. Anyone know how many points scored against us while packer and mats are off? I’d guess a lot

Honestly these articles, I appreciate the thought energy, but they make this silly assumption that teams can only focus on one thing at a time, i.e. either defence or attack.

As if Ivan runs defensive drills all week, then runs out of time to squeeze in some attack the day before the game.

Tigers defend well in 2018 because they are pretty well-drilled, reasonably fit and have added a fair number of good defensive options to the roster. Furthermore with your average footballer, it’s easier to teach them to defend well than attack well, because defence is about technique and stamina, but attack is about athleticism and football nous. As Gould loves to say you can’t coach speed, and I say you can’t make a plodder an attacking weapon. Robbie Rochow has a top-speed of cruise, he’s never doing to be denting lines.

The one point the writer did make, that I liked, is that we certainly do err on the side of a defensive rather than attacking roster. But as always it’s a balance. Rochow doesn’t have much attacking chops, but who are you going to replace him with? Aloiai is really the only obvious answer, maybe Garner if you feel like promoting people. Aloiai definitely has the attack, but then you introduce limited minutes and handling errors, so it’s always a compromise.

The Tigers fundamental issue with attack are the options taken and sometimes extremely boring structures to get out of trouble. Tigers in attack still lack direction, and about 50% of games we either get it kind of right or really quite wrong. We struggle coming out of danger and even though our kick metres are actually really good, we really struggle against a quick defensive line.

Benji and Brooks still go too across-field rather than into the line, and there are not enough running options. Then at FB, whilst I love Thommo for all his grit and fullback defensive capability, he’s not much of a threat in attack by himself, he’s much more a support runner. So when Benji runs right looking for options, he’s got Rochow, Marsters or a sweeping Thompson - hardly setting panic into the opposition.

When Brooks runs left, he has Lawrence and, up until the other week, Frozone, with FB again sweeping. That’s why Fonua was such a revelation against Cowboys and Parra, because they stopped hard-marking on the Brooks/Lawrence attack line and started worrying far more about the 1-1 in the centres. Tigers used this to great effect with the left-side passing interchange against Cowboys for several line breaks, and also the Hooth try against Parra was a result of the defence shifting too hard against a perceived threat.

But more often than not, turning the ball inside is boring and easily eaten up. Benji does not take on the line enough and doesn’t run straight enough. There aren’t enough runners in motion to confuse the defence and LOTS of our passes miss the mark. Liddle at least tends to pass the ball nicely out in front and stomach-high, but so many other passes are up around shoulders or behind. Then short kicking selection is mostly poor, as is the old “40 m might as well bomb” tactic that only works if your runners are constantly swarming down in a straight line.

So for mine, Tigers’ attack issue are mostly related to bad decision-making and lack of threat across the park rather than defensive focus. Sure you could swap out some defensive players for more attack, but we don’t have enough quality players that do both, and I’d much rather tune up the defence this season than the attack.

Some great observations.

I agree completely on the Elijah Taylor selection blunder. He’s a great player but slow passes and no risk of a dummy half run make our forwards easy pickings for opposing sides.

A lot of good observations and analysis there Jirskyr. I think it was fairly clear to most fans, the difference between us and the Panthers was players like Campbell-Gillard, Fisher-Harris, Yeo, Merrin, Kikau, Tamou etc provide strong go forward and penetration. This allowed them to play the ball quickly in attack, giving their quality halves more time to play. In defence, they had good line speed and aggression, which coupled with our poor penetration gave our halves very little time or space. The flow on advantages that accumulates to a team doing these basic things well, go a long way to dominating field position, penalty count and ultimately momentum in the game.

In that game we also completed at 60% in the second half and had 12 men for 10mins - that is poor and obviously not good enough to beat a side like Penrith. Most of the mistakes came from ill discipline, pushing offloads that were not on or badly executed - tried due to the frustration and desire to make something happen after being pinned in our own half.

Sounds like Myles Kuah thinks he has all the answers, maybe he should contact Cleary, tell him of his expertise and ask Cleary does he want to be his assistant next year.

Line speed and offloads jave disappeared.

Thats what won us the games against the better fancied teams earlier on.

We shouldn’t have lost against Newy and Parra

Look make it simple

Penrith , our kicking game and kick chase were very ordinary , worst game in these areas all year

Our biggest attacking weapon kicking wise has been Marshall’s floating bombs , we saw one (Benji injured perhaps ??)

We lost field position , got rolled in the middle and continually were coming off our own try line

We had about 65% completion rate in the 2nd half , at one stage it was 33% , we gassed ourselves

We had some early chances , 2 in particular stood out

We could have quite easily led 8-0 after 11 minutes

Cleary’s first few comments post game were about the kicking game , he realizes what the issues were , didn’t have to be Einstein , stood out like dogs balls

Not going to get crazy yet , but if we see a repeat this week it could be time to get concerned

Reckon we will see changes squad wise …… Cleary may have put a line in the sand , could be wrong though

Losing the ruck wasnt even mentioned.

I believe that the Tigers have been too good in defence

Ivan Cleary has done brilliantly to turn a squad of misfits into a well oiled defensive unit

I cant agree, winning the ruck starts with a capable and controlled defensive unit, the attitude is there, the execution isnt yet, once we win the ruck in defense our forwards and halves take advantage. easier to attack once the ruck is won, opposition defense is on the back foot, our forwards are going forward and our halves have time & room.

There is no point in us working more on attack until we can win the ruck 3 out of four or five games…and really I dont believe the attack needs work, weve seen what we can do with the little we have in regards to speed and flair

Pretty fair assessment.
I think we lack a damaging backrower and a threatening ball playing fullback in attack. I honestly don’t know what to do with Taylor outside of making 38 tackles he adds zero to our team.
Rochow, Eiso, Sue, don’t have enough impact and I’m still a little disappointed in Matulino, I expected him to dominate the middle more.

Recent Topics

Support our community by clicking here and joining our Forum Support Scheme