Campo’s Classics: The 2005 Wests Tigers were a bolt of lightning
In this week, Campo’s Classics winds back the clock to 2005 to remember when the Wests Tigers hit rugby league like a bolt of lightning.
Nick Campton, The Daily Telegraph
The footy is gone, we don’t know when it’ll come back and that absolutely sucks (but it might be close).
But until it comes back, we can always think back to great games from the past.
Every week until the NRL comes back, we’ll dive into a classic game from the archives and dissect how it was won and lost, and what it meant.
This week the Tigers and Sharks were supposed to kick off Magic Round, so we\re going back to 2005 to check out a brilliant joint veture victory.
With sport on the shelf for the foreseeable future, and no games or signings or controversies to argue about, rugby league has, like every other sport in the world, turned into a factory for nostalgia.
Since the league shut down six weeks ago, there have been a litany of Top 10s ranking every single little thing you could imagine. Best five-eighths of the NRL era, or cult heroes of the last 40 years, or top players from this club, or best grand finals - everything has been organised, listed and ranked for your argument-inducing pleasure.
With very few exceptions, everything on these lists are subjective. Unless somebody does something utterly crazy there’s not a whole lot you can do if you disagree except post some furious Facebook comments and send the link to your friends asking if they can believe this goddamn moron rated so-and-so ahead of whoever.
That’s because there is a difference between somebody thinking a team or a player is the best and that team or player being somebody’s favourite. The best belongs to everyone, the favourite only to you.
If you were stacking up the best premiers of the NRL era, it’s doubtful the 2005 Wests Tigers rank too highly. They did not have the sheer dominance of the 2017 Storm, or the ludicrous star power of the 1998 Broncos or the strength of will of the 2013 Roosters. They did not carry a whole region on their shoulders like the 2015 Cowboys, or go back to back like the 2018-19 Roosters, or take success as their birthright like the 2008 Sea Eagles.
They’re probably not the best. But they’re everybody’s favourite. If your own team has won one recently, you’re excused. Otherwise, I have no choice but to assume you’re the the kind of miserable prick who hates joy and goodness and length-of-the-field tries on sunny Sunday afternoons.
Plenty has been written and said about the 2005 Tigers but it’s worth quickly noting their unique place in history. The 2005 grand final is one of just three in the NRL era that did not feature the Broncos, Storm, Sea Eagles or Roosters. The Tigers are the only premiership team of the NRL era to win the title without an Origin player from that season. They finished ninth the season before they won the grand final and 11th the season afterwards, and to this day they have only made the finals three times.
All of this on its own would be enough to make the Tigers likeable, but that’s not why everybody remembers them so fondly. Simply put, they were a team of attacking lunatics for whom no pass was too audacious and no score was ever too great to chase down. After the Tigers came and went, and the proliferation of second-man plays spread across the game, a lot of teams started to attack the same way, with halves posted up on either side of the field, backrowers running hard unders lines off the half, fullbacks sweeping around the back and everything else coming off the back of that. It is only in recent years that rugby league has moved away from this style, and it has done so because everybody has seen it so many times there was nothing new to do with it.
There has not been a team that attacked like the Tigers since the Tigers went away — the closest any team has come is the Tigers themselves, when they returned to the finals in 2010 and 2011. The 2005 Tigers could only exist in 2005, which is right on the point of a divergence in attacking football — the wild, points-mad days of the early 2000s meeting the more compartmentalized and regimented play of the latter part of the decade. It is fitting they were coached by Tim Sheens, because they owe so much in style to Sheens’ Canberra sides of the early 1990s.
They inherited so many similarities — such as their ability to play with width, the willingness to promote the ball without it ever seeming as though they were pushing the pass, the use of their speed and mobility as a constant weapon regardless of the situation or score — that they seem more evolutionary than revolutionary.
The key to what the Tigers did was movement off the ball and supporting each runner in order to give that runner options. Every player in their team could pass the ball at least a little bit, and they played with such great width, often via long passes from dummy half and first receiver, it opened up the entire field for the likes of Marshall and Prince and Farah and Brett Hodgson. Their forward pack prioritised agility over size at every turn — it meant they lost out on yardage, but it didn\t matter.
Things that seemed crazy to everyone else weren’t crazy to them — Sheens used to tell them they could do anything they wanted on the field, so long as they’d practised it at training. As such, all the things you saw — like Marshall’s behind the back flick pass in the grand final, or Prince’s backspinning kicks that stopped exactly when he wanted, or John Skandalis finding offloading skills he probably never knew he had — all happened out at Concord Oval before they ever happened at Leichhardt or Campbelltown.
They had so many fine days that season, as they gathered momentum through the year and grew into themselves and their style. I have always been partial to their 37-36 victory over the Bulldogs in Round 3, where they trailed 18-6 just before half-time, got to a 36-18 lead with nine to go then totally collapsed and let in three tries in 10 minutes before Scott Prince won them the game with a field goal in the finals seconds. The Round 17 win over Manly, a 49-24 dazzler that really got their run into the finals going, was another highlight. But the point where the 2005 Tigers were the MOST 2005 Tigers was against the Sharks, in Round 21, down at Toyota Park.
The Sharks weren’t a bad side in 2005 — they finished seventh, and gave the Dragons a hell of a scare before going down in the first week of the finals. They were hard-nosed and tough, like all good Sharks teams, and even though David Peachey and Brett Kimmorley and Adam Dykes were still around, their heart was in the forwards with guys like Danny Nutley and Paul Gallen and Jason Stevens. They were in a different universe to the Tigers, and it showed.
In front of a sun-drenched crowd of over 18,000, the Tigers feasted on the Sharks, who looked hopelessly cumbersome and totally unable to deal with what was happening to them. The Tigers won 46-6 and it wasn’t even that close.
You know this game because of the Benji Marshall run. I’m sure you’ve seen it a million times, but it’s still as good the millionth and first. With 20 to go, and the Tigers leading 18-6, Marshall gets the ball three passes wide and takes off, launching three right-foot steps that are positively violent, before accelerating between two more defenders, beating Peachey with another step and firing a 15-metre, no-look pass out to Pat Richards. Richards lobs it back inside for Daniel Fitzhenry, and the most unfashionable player on the Tigers roster scores one of the most remarkable tries of a remarkable season.
But there’s so much more to this game than that. Marshall sets up another try to Richards early, when he jinks through the defense on his own 40, loses his footing, and just throws it up in hope for the big winger, who takes it easily and cruises 50 metres to score, beating the fullback with absurd ease. Richards is one of Australian rugby league’s lost gems — he was a superb athlete with an enormous boot, but after this season he went to England and became a legend for Wigan instead.
Then they went the length of the field, with Brett Hodgson collecting a Dykes grubber on his own goalline and firing a pass to Richards, who cantered 70 metres before finding Marshall in support to score. Hodgson got a try himself just after half-time, one of 15 he would score that season. All told, Hodgson finished the season with 308 points, the second-highest total of all time. He is just as important a factor to the premiership as Marshall and Prince and Robbie Farah, but is often overlooked.
Then came Fitzhenry’s try, and then three-straight to Prince, and one more to Dene Halatau and it was done. The poor old Sharks were left gasping for breath, and the Tigers ran and ran and didn’t stop running until they made it all the way to the grand final, and completed a season which even they could not replicate or imitate, no matter how hard they tried. There was no steady rise to contention before the title, or slow fall from grace after it. The Tigers were nowhere, then everywhere, then went right back to nowhere.
It might have been better this way. The Tigers faithful, consigned to a lifetime of ninth-placed finishes, would kill for another title, but 2005 deserves to stand alone and it’s part of the reason why everybody else loves this team like they do.
The 2005 Tigers were the first club since Newtown in 1910 to win the premiership in their first finals series. They were born in 2000 from two clubs who had not won titles since 1969 and 1952. There was no history of success to make other fans jealous and resentful, and there was no extended rein to turn them from beloved underdogs into hated overlords. They did not build to 2005, and 2005 did not build to something — they missed the finals four years in a row afterwards, despite all of Marshall’s and Farah’s and Sheens’ talent and expertise.
Maybe the Tigers could have kept the energy going had Prince not left for the Titans — the Queenslander was the best player on the premiership team, and Marshall has never found a halves partner who complemented him as well as Prince. It was on Marshall and Farah’s backs the Tigers returned to the finals in 2010 and 2011, and the 2010 side had flashes of the fearlessness and audacity that made them champions in 2005, but the times were different and the game was different and they could not score their way out of trouble as they once did.
Now we’re at a point where the 2005 Tigers are doing the one thing that seemed impossible for them — they’re getting old. Hodgson and Prince retired in 2013, Richards hung them up after 2016 and Farah went away and came back and retired at the end of last season. Even Marshall, who started so young and so fast, is now one of the league’s old men.
But amid those struggles and even as the Tigers continue to grapple with the longest finals drought in the NRL and as the heroes of that season recede into memory and myth, 2005 shines out like a beacon. Nobody cheers for Goliath, but this is a sport where David hardly ever wins, and it’s made all the more special by its rarity. The 2005 Tigers didn’t climb the ladder, they leapt it in a single bound and broke their legs when they landed, and for that they will never be forgotten.