Wests Tigers are the darlings no more
Adam Blair in action during the NRL round 24, Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs v Wests Tigers (AAP Image/Action Photographics, Robb Cox)
A funny thing happened in the NRL this season. The club that had earned the unofficial title of ‘everyone’s second favourite team’ has rapidly become the side that many opposition fans now love to put the boot into.
Previously a team that everyone had a soft spot for, the Wests Tigers are no longer the darlings of the NRL.
When the Tigers won the premiership in 2005, it was a feel good story for the code.
While the team were the underdogs that season – which always ensures support in Australia – their popularity, both that season and ongoing, was also largely built upon their style of play: free-flowing, instinctive and with more than just a touch of flair
The orchestrator of this attractive brand of football is the extremely talented Benji Marshall, a player with a vast array of brilliant attacking skills that mesmerise the opposition, while thrilling fans.
The other Tiger that deserves special mention is the team’s hooker, Robbie Farah.
Farah’s ability, in particular his kicking game, is high class, and his combination with Benji makes the Tigers a lethal team with the ball in-hand.
Through the years Benji and Robbie have had plenty of running mates that have also had the ability to get fans out of their seats. Scott Prince, Lote Tuqiri, Brett Hodgson, Chris Lawrence, Taniela Tuiaki, Todd Payten and Beau Ryan are just a handful of some of the exciting players the Tigers have had in their ranks.
The club became renowned for playing positive – some would say flashy – football. They made rugby league fun to watch, regardless of whether or not they were the actual team you supported.
It got to the stage where there was a belief among rugby league fans that if your own team couldn’t take home the premiership, you were happy to see the Tigers win it.
Yet something has changed this year; something that has seen the club lose its mantle of ‘everyone’s second favourite team’.
To be accurate, it’s more than just one thing. It’s a combination of factors.
First of all, as I alluded to earlier, the club has always been somewhat of an underdog, and that always appeals to the Australian mentality of supporting the ‘little guy’.
However, the Tigers didn’t start this season as underdogs.
Though often backed by numerous pundits to finish in the top four, many tipped them to actually win the competition this year.
Suddenly, the perception of the Tigers had shifted from an ‘enjoyable team to watch that might even win the competition’ to ‘the favourites’.
With that shift, the Tigers lost their underdogs status, and along with it, a small part of their appeal.
However, it wasn’t just their new found favouritism working against them. Some personnel issues also led to ill-feeling towards the club.
The Tigers always had a perception of being very tight-knit and loyal. That perception took a beating when club favourites Tim Moltzen, Bryce Gibbs and Andrew Fifita were all told to look for new teams so that the Tigers could sign Melbourne Storm international Adam Blair.
The three players were extremely popular with teammates and fans alike, so the decision did not go down well, especially when all expressed their disappointment at having to leave a club they loved.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the Tigers then did an Olympic-sized back flip regarding Moltzen.
Moltzen had signed a contract to play with the Dragons in 2012, yet when Tigers halfback Robert Lui ran afoul of the law due to a domestic violence charge – another black eye for the club – it became apparent that he would not be returning to the team.
Suddenly the Tigers needed Moltzen back.
Technically, the Tigers hadn’t granted Moltzen an official release, which meant he had essentially signed two different contracts. Since the original one was with the Tigers, they eventually won the legal wrangling between the two clubs, and Moltzen stayed with Wests.
It was a disappointing episode for all involved, but the Tigers and Moltzen coming out of it looking the worst.
Making the whole situation worse has been Blair’s extremely patchy form this year, which has seen him struggle to justify his lofty salary, and led to fans questioning why the Tigers somewhat gutted their team to sign him.
Another issue for the club came earlier in the season.
With the Tigers failing to live up to pre-season expectations and languishing near the bottom of the ladder, Robbie Farah made an appearance on NRL on Fox that, at the time, came across as petulant and overly sensitive.
To be completely fair to Robbie, his subsequent performances in Origin and the passing of his mother, means that interview is almost completely forgiven and forgotten.
In hindsight, he was passionate rather than petulant. But, at the time, it provided fans with another excuse to feel cold about the Tigers.
Lastly, and perhaps most crucially, the Tigers might not be the most fun club to watch anymore.
Don’t get me wrong, the skills of Marshall and Farah are always worth tuning in for. But I actually think a few teams are, at the very least, equally entertaining.
I personally believe Ben Barba and the Canterbury-Bankstown boys have played more aesthetically pleasing and exciting football than the Tigers this year. Though as a Bulldogs fan, I’ll probably be accused of bias, so I’ll leave it up to Roarers to decide who the most exhilarating team to watch is.
All these factors have had the accumulative effect of the Tigers losing a little bit of their appeal.
Evidence of this came last Friday night, when the Tigers copped an appalling referee decision at a crucial juncture in the match against the Bulldogs.
Yet, there was little sympathy from other fans, when in previous years the Tigers would have received plenty of support in their favour. The general consensus from their rivals was “suck it up princesses”.
The club has always had a lot of bandwagon fans, but they do seem to be falling off of late.
The Tigers are the NRL’s darlings no more.
Ryan is an ex-representative basketballer who shot too much, and a (very) medium pace bowler. He's been with The Roar as an expert since February 2011, has written for the Seven Network and NBA Down Under, and been a regular on ABC radio. Ryan tweets from @RyanOak.
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