“John Lennon said, “I’m an artist. You give me a f@*#ing tuba, I’ll get you something out of it.”
I was unable to verify whether this quote, attributed to John Lennon by Jack Nicholson’s Boston gangster character Frank Costello in the movie The Departed, was actually delivered by the great Beatle or not.
However, what I do know is that the same sentiment could be readily delivered by Ivan Cleary – not that a bloke like him would ever make such a brash statement – in regard to his undoubted ability to get the very best out of players.
But for an Ash Klein penalty – which I still maintain was justified – the Wests Tigers may well be undefeated in season 2018.
While one of those victories has been over the struggling Eels, their gritty and disciplined victories over the well credentialled Roosters, as well as their two wins against the Storm, have totally removed them from any talk of wooden spoons.
While some betting agencies are yet to wake up to the realisation that the 2018 Wests Tigers only have the vaguest similarity to the 2017 model (I got $1.91 for them last weekend with a 7.5 point start!) the rest of the football world knows that they are the real deal.
Just last season the joint venture club was a shambles. Having just missed the finals in 2016, they started the 2017 season with a 34-18 win over the Rabbitohs before conceding 132 points in their next four games. On top of that their four best players were all coming off contract simultaneously. There was infighting a-plenty and the ongoing viability of the club was openly in question.
Enter Ivan Cleary.
I’m no recent arrival to the boy from Beacon Hill’s admiration society. His efforts at the Warriors and then the Panthers – culminating in a grand final and preliminary final respectively – clearly showed the bloke could make a silk purse from a sows ear.
I still have no idea why Phil Gould got rid of him. Maybe it’s because Cleary demands supreme executive control over his sides and that’s just not a thing that Gus can bring himself to cede.
When Cleary walked into the Wests Tigers in Round 6 2017 it was totally on his terms. He was in charge. It was his bus and if you wanted to be on that bus it was only if you were going to play by his rules.
Cleary seemingly cared little for the reputations of ‘the big four’ of Aaron Woods, James Tedesco, Luke Brooks and Mitchell Moses. He showed that emphatically when he released the want-away Moses after Round 10 to go to the Eels. Soon after Tedesco and Woods announced their departures at season’s end. Only Brooks chose to stay on the bus.
However, you could tell that bus was heading somewhere. When Cleary took over the Wests Tigers they had a points differential of minus 88, an average match deficit of 15 points.
By seasons end that had been cut to just nine points, with the team winning six of their 18 games under Cleary with an average match deficit of just four points.
The bus was getting into gear.
When the club released the promising Moses Suli in the preseason I – and lots of others – thought it signalled yet more turmoil for the besieged club.
While previewing the potential of all 16 NRL clubs pre-season, I could not see how the Wests Tigers list could possibly be competitive. And then Cleary named this squad for the first match of 2018.
8. Matt Eisenhuth
9. Pita Godinet
10. Russell Packer
11. Robbie Rochow
12. Chris Lawrence
13. Elijah Taylor
7. Luke Brooks
6. Benji Marshall
5. Malakai Watene-Zelezniak
4. Kevin Naiqama
3. Esan Masters
2. Corey Thompson
1. Tui Lolohea
14. Ben Matulino
15. Alex Twal
16. Michael Chee-Kam
17. Matt McIlwrick
All that I could say of this team was that it was clearly a bunch of has beens, never weres and never would bes.
Not only wasn’t Josh Reynolds available, Cleary actually kept David Nofoaluma, Chris McQueen and Sauso Sue in the reserves. Did he want to lose?
I was far from the Lone Ranger when I predicted a total flogging at the hands of a Roosters team that featured Cooper Cronk, Latrell Mitchell, Boyd Cordner and Blake Ferguson.
When Corey Thompson went over in the 77th minute and Tui Lolohea duly converted from out wide for the Wests Tigers to hit the lead we were all stunned.
How had they done it?
Well, it was simple really. Just like all Cleary coached sides, they played incredibly disciplined team football. They didn’t drop the ball and give the Roosters easy possession, duly completing at 84 per cent.
They held their defensive line with maniacal zeal, missing only 21 tackles. They pressured their opposition, who made 13 errors. They ran the ball with intent, making 160 more metres than their opposition. And when their chance came to score they took it.
This was not an accident and their other four equally dedicated efforts show that it was far from a fluke.
This is what a player learns on Ivan’s bus: a great work ethic, application to a game plan, pressure and belief in themselves and their teammates.
As the success has continued so has their confidence and belief grown.
However, they won’t get carried away. Ivan doesn’t do big egos. Never has. He has no time for the sort of show boating rubbish that comes with it. I’m surprised Kevin Naiqama is even able to keep his haircut.
Ivan wants only your hard work and your total buy in. In fact he demands it or you can get the hell off his damn bus.
And from this motley assortment he has cobbled together – these waifs and strays, these mongrels, these feral tigers of Campbelltown – he has clearly got it.
Just look at these incredible team stats:
• the fewest tries conceded of any side (7) so far this season. That includes two games against last season’s top-scoring side.
• the fewest errors of any side (40)
• the most errors forced from their opponents (60)
• the third fewest line breaks conceded (11)
• the third most metres made (7638)
• the most kick metres made of any side (3314)
• the most line drop outs forced (14)
This weekend star recruit Josh Reynolds will get his first start for the Wests Tigers off the bench. Further, David Nofoaluma and Suaso Sue have returned to a side they now know they must earn their place in. Chris McQueen has even made the extended bench. It seems the club I thought had the worst list in the league actually has some pretty good depth.
Any talk of the Wests Tigers getting the wooden spoon is now totally gone. Further, I’ll be very surprised if they miss the finals.
The only question I have is whether they can go all the way without some real star power to help them win finals matches.
Perhaps Josh Reynolds dodgy hamstring will allow him to play that role for his new club. It would be a Cinderella story for the ages.
However, it won’t be the sort with glass slippers or flowing gowns if it happens.
It will be the ugly step sisters crashing the ball – but in a very methodical, deliberate and committed manner – to carry off the Prince, whether he likes it or not, to bring him back to Ivan’s bus.
Like John Lennon, Ivan Cleary is an artist.
You can give him pretty much any bunch of footballers – even these feral Tigers of Campbelltown – and he’ll f*&^ing get something out of them…
Just watch him.