Sources close to the Wests Tigers leadership group have reported deep concerns that the team has produced back-to-back wins to suddenly move into sixth place.
At a club with a proud and consistent history of finishing in ninth or tenth place, coaching staff and senior players are worried about this unexpected setback from what had been a promising campaign building nicely towards just missing out on yet another finals series.
Coach Michael Maguire and his staff will be only too aware at how close the club came at the end of season 2019 to losing their place in the bottom eight. Two big wins in a row in Rounds 23 and 24 last year had put the team in serious danger of qualifying for the playoffs but the club held its nerve and imploded in their Round 25 clash against the Sharks to safely secure ninth spot for the third time in four years.
Maguire came to Concord under the enormous pressure of taking over a club that had previously finished ninth or tenth place an incredible eight times in its short history as a joint-venture. While the former Souths mentor may have ultimately delivered the desired results in 2019, he is acutely aware that club legends are yet to be convinced by him.
The club is known to be a difficult place for new coaches to gain trust and respect, leading to Ivan Cleary getting off the bus shortly after he invited his players to get on. Players and staff that have left report that its culture runs deep, with Tigers insiders often looking down on people who, they say, don’t understand or possess what it takes to consistently just fall short.
If Maguire misses the mark in 2020, it will not be due to a lack of off-season planning. The club carefully managed its player roster over the summer months to let go of another high-potential player in Ryan Matterson.
As with James Tedesco, Mitchell Moses, Andrew Fifita, Aaron Woods, Martin Taupau, Marika Koroibete and Josh Ado-Carr before him, the club has always found a way to divest of players that showed early signs of having elite talent before they upset the delicate balance of the team.
However, it is now starting to look like the player swap that brought young Melbourne hooker Harry Grant on loan may backfire spectacularly, with the promising rake making a worrying rise up the Dally M leaderboard.
“Look, I don’t want to be harsh on the kid but it’s clear he’s been largely to blame for us winning those last two games,” said one club legend.
“The recruitment team that needs to take a look in the mirror. I mean, how could they get the list management so wrong? Importing talent from a club with a long culture of success like Melbourne was bound to severely disrupt the team’s rhythm.
“The kid can’t just walk in and ‘get’ the club’s culture overnight, it takes time to know and understand the DNA of the Tigers and play accordingly! Heads should roll for this!”
One player who declined to be named was frank about the need to “right the ship” now they sit precariously in sixth, revealing: “’Madge’ let rip after the win on Saturday night. The boys know they need to get back on track to that consistent win-loss-win-loss record.
“We’ll need to really step up and focus in the lead up to some upcoming must-lose games or risk everything we’ve worked so hard not to achieve.”
Only time will tell if this will be the year the Tigers go off the rails and reach the finals. It would be a bittersweet end to the great Benji Marshall’s career, a champion who announced himself to the world in 2005, ironically the last time the Tigers failed dismally in their quest for mediocrity.