There are few sporting teams in the world with a history like the Wests Tigers, a joint venture that was formed by two struggling foundation clubs in the aftermath of the most tumultuous period in rugby league’s history.
The agreement of Balmain and Western Suburbs in forming the merger was that the board would be a 50-50 of members from both sides and would play half their games at Leichhardt Oval and the rest at Campbelltown Stadium.
Many people gave them no chance, saying they would fall apart due to infighting on the club’s board, financial issues or fans abandoning their team because of the merger. For a few years it seemed that they’d be right. But then in 2005, just five years after they played their first game, they won the premiership out of nowhere.
It seemed like the rocky marriage was working. They had a good coach in Tim Sheens, experienced leaders in Brett Hodgson, Scott Prince and John Skandalis and exciting youngsters like Robbie Farah and Benji Marshall.
Flash forward 15 years and the 2005 premiership seems like a lifetime ago. Since then they have made the finals just twice (2010 and 2011), have experienced infighting on the board and financial hardship. They have many problems with player and club culture, but their biggest issue is they don’t seem to know exactly who or what they represent.
They started out playing with an even split of home games at Leichhardt and Campbelltown, roughly six games per season. Since then they’ve taken multiple home games each year to the Sydney Football Stadium, ANZ Stadium and now Bankwest Stadium. Their traditional homes get only three games per year, usually against out-of-town teams that don’t draw a crowd, such as Melbourne, North Queensland and Gold Coast. Not only that, but they train somewhere in the middle of all this at Concord.
Unsurprisingly, crowds have dwindled, and this is being used as an excuse to play fewer games there. When the club plays actual derbies at those grounds they still pull near sell-out crowds.
People around Campbelltown have lost interest in the club because they no longer feel like the club represents them. Campbelltown Stadium has had Macarthur FC soccer flags hanging up for over a year. Not once have they been taken down to support Wests Tigers. It’s no surprise people aren’t interested in a team that hasn’t actually played in front of a crowd there all year.
Sydney’s south-west is one of the fastest-growing regions in Australia, projected to grow by over 300,000 people in the next two decades, as well as welcome the construction of a new airport. The A-League have already made their intentions clear by forming Macarthur FC to play at Campbelltown from 2020-21. If Wests Tigers aren’t careful, they could lose one of the most important rugby league heartlands.
The solution is simple: they need to start investing in Campbelltown again. They can’t keep this nomadic existence across Sydney going. They need to be based out of Campbelltown full-time. There have been proposals to build a ‘mini-Bankwest’ stadium at Campbelltown, which the club should jump at.
Being based permanently at Campbelltown wouldn’t mean the end of Balmain or Leichhardt Oval. They could still play some games there and do school visits, training days and fan days. It would just mean that, for the first time, the club could actually represent something and develop a proper club culture. They can simplify things to improve the club.
If they were to play eight games at Campbelltown and four at Leichhardt, that would be as close to perfect as this club and its fans can ask for. Honour the inner west past and embrace the south-west future.