Many Wests Tigers supporters sit back and wonder why their club receives so much attention when things are going bad. The simple fact is supporters should be happy that people care enough to have an opinion in the first place.
Some might be okay to be left alone and let the organisation slip and slide from one average season to the next but when is enough, truly enough?
Whether you think Wests Tigers should have a centre of excellence at Concord, shift headquarters and all operations to the Macarthur region or play home games on the other side of Pluto – it is quite apparent that on-field results have been poor again in 2021.
There are two ships, right now, sailing through the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
One is the Wests Tigers head office – the untouchable few – happy to run the place as a ‘big Sydney club’ (their words). It’s easy to skip around the Inner West with their quick-fix sponsorship money, smart suits and be something they’re not.
Even easier to hit the KPIs they set for themselves.
The other ship circling under the pitch-black dead of night is their bumbling football team.
Right now, all the pressure is on the coach… again.
While they have unearthed several promising youngsters that will be so much better in 2022, their roster for this campaign just wasn’t good enough to compete in a majority of games to challenge for the finals. In a sad twist of fate, the Fox League documentary Maguire didn’t want, pumped up the club more than it deserved and expectations grew.
Every few years, the ships collide and it’s always the coach at the helm as a footy team drowns.
It doesn’t matter who you are, everyone agrees that Wests Tigers have always struggled with their identity. The common denominator is that they have forever tried to be more than one thing. Have their cake and eat it too.
They are currently trying to tell us that they are successful off-field and have plenty of “stars” on-field – according to the ‘Wild Wests’ doco.
If this is their new identity, they’ve failed at that too.They’ve become a meme. How did they get there?
Many still consider the 1989 decider the greatest rugby league grand final of all time. It would be Canberra’s first premiership triumph and it came against the Balmain Tigers, delivering back-to-back grand final day heartbreaks for the men from Leichhardt.
Everything worked against them. Moments in time. A flap of the wing of a butterfly.
The Tigers had several chances in the second half to clinch their first premiership since 1969. Mick Neil got ankle-tapped, Wayne Pearce dropped the ball, Ben Elias’ field goal attempt hit the post. Steve Roach was taken out of the game by Warren Ryan.
They fought hard the following year but were bundled out of the finals by Manly-Warringah.
This was the last great era for Balmain and it would be a shockingly quick fade back into the pack – never to be sighted again.
The signing of Wallabies coach and media personality Alan Jones became a nightmare. Pearce came back as coach. Legends like Garry Jack and Ellery Hanley returned for short stints in the 1990s. Paul Sironen hung on until 1998. The club moved out of Leichhardt to Parramatta Stadium for two seasons and then back again.
With the Super League War at an end, talks turned to battling Sydney clubs entering mergers to keep their respective histories alive and move into a new era for the game.
By season 2000, the newly formed National Rugby League would be taking only 14 clubs.
Denis Fitzgerald and the powerful Eels club came circling.
From a marketing perspective, Fitzgerald believed the Tiger logo was far easier to promote than the Eel. The ‘Parramatta Tigers’ had a ring to it. Negotiations were so far down the track that CEOs and chairmen from both clubs had agreed on terms and it was only knocked on the head when Tigers legends and powerful supporters came forward in protest.
Ultimately, the last-second decision to turn their back on Parramatta and announce a merger with the Campbelltown-based Western Suburbs Magpies would be a masterstroke. The Balmain heritage and logistical dominance in the joint venture has never been stronger in 2021 albeit thanks to the same Magpies who were only saved by moving to Campbelltown in the late 1980s.
The Magpies had struggled since their move to Orana Park in 1987 to win hearts and minds. It didn’t help that they won two straight wooden spoons before finishing 14th and 13th in their first four seasons at Campbelltown.
It may not have meant much at the time but the decision to allow Western Suburbs Magpies Junior Rugby League to run as a completely separate entity with its own people would spell disaster for the region decades later.
Then in 1991, with the arrival of Warren Ryan, fortunes changed. The mixture of local rising stars like Jason Taylor and a bunch of hard-nosed grizzled veterans from the Bulldogs turned everything around. They qualified for the finals in 1991 and 1992. Average crowds were up from 6984 in ’87 to 11,489 in ’91.
Players lived in the area. The team was winning.
It would become common to see Ryan floating around different junior league games – early in the morning – around Campbelltown on any given Saturday. I saw it myself as a junior of the Warriors club on Junction Road in Ruse.
By the end of 1993, Ryan and young halfback Taylor couldn’t work together any longer. Taylor asked for a release and was knocked back. He was off to the North Sydney Bears for the 1994 season, anyway. Soon after, Ryan was gone too.
Enter Tom Raudonikis. More than anything, Raudonikis’ time in Campbelltown can be remembered for one crazy Monday in August, 1996.
With their season on the line, Channel Nine’s live cameras came to the old Orana Park to see the Magpies’ must-win match against Taylor and the Bears. Or Jason ‘Traitor’ as he was known locally at the time.
This was the golden age of Monday Night Football. Not the one we remember most recently.
So many of those games were last-second, drama-filled blockbusters. Famous bands played before kick-off.
On this night, Dragon performed at the southern end of the field behind the posts.
Taylor missed his first shot at penalty goal from in front under the heavy boos of the crowd.
We’ve all spoken about this game a million times – it ends with an Andrew Willis’ 50 metre field goal on full-time, if you don’t know. Your writer, a nine-year-old Magpies tragic running with the kick underneath the western grandstand… finally seeing it appear, dropping, scraping above the crossbar.
There weren’t many more good nights for the Magpies after that. Wests were bundled out of the ’96 finals by Cronulla at Parramatta Stadium and it was all over.
The less said about their performances in their final three seasons the better.
With the whips cracking and time running out for clubs like the Magpies, desperate merger talks began with the Penrith Panthers and Canterbury Bulldogs.
Paul ‘Fatty’ Vautin on the The Footy Show in 1999 famously showed a mock-up of a potential Magpies/Bulldogs jersey full of black and blue.
Considering their district borders crashed together at Liverpool, the whole thing made much more sense than a partnership with Balmain. The Bulldogs were also set to build a new stadium at Liverpool – right on the doorstep of the Magpies junior league (several clubs from Liverpool still play in the Wests league). The other option was Penrith who bordered Campbelltown and Camden to the north.
Then, seemingly from nowhere, an announcement was made.
Balmain and Western Suburbs had agreed to become ‘Wests Tigers’.
While very old history says it made sense, many were baffled out how they could make it work considering the distance between Leichhardt and Campbelltown. The Magpies, nestled in Leumeah, were now marrying Balmain.
Wests Tigers’ first CEO Martin Bullock, a great administrator and Group 6 player in his time, has gone on record to say that from the new club’s very first meeting, it was agreed that within a few years, operations would be moved to the Macarthur region.
It never happened and the club is still paying for it.
From the opening game of the 2000 season at Campbelltown Stadium it was evident that this was going to be a tough ask – to melt two different fan bases so different – to believe in this new entity.
On a Sunday in February (the season was brought forward for the Olympics), Wests Tigers ran out for their first ever NRL game.
From the first few minutes, two separate and loud chants came out from the 15,000-strong crowd.
‘Wests, Wests, Wests’ began from the western stand and the hills. On the other side of the field, in reply, came ‘Tigers, Tigers, Tigers’.
Despite all the stars the club had bought thanks to salary cap exemptions given to them by the NRL and the fact they were winning for most of the 2000 season, cracks started to appear quickly.
Coach Pearce quit. Kevin McGuinness and Craig Field were banned for using recreational drugs.
John Hopoate was suspended for his digit inspection of a North Queensland Cowboys player.
Terry Lamb, Pearce’s replacement punted star Terry Hill to NSW Cup.
Lamb was sacked and in came former Campbelltown City Kangaroos premiership-winning captain and rugby league legend Tim Sheens. All the while, the planned shift to the Macarthur never happened.
By 2004, Wests Tigers were a team still toiling but never considered anything near a premiership threat. But they did claim their first silverware. The 2004 World Sevens was won with an unlikely final victory over Parramatta at the SFS and they came within a whisker of qualifying for the NRL finals if not for a final round loss to the Knights in Newcastle.
Nobody in their right minds would predict what was about to happen.
It would be the greatest thing to ever happen to the club but it would come far too soon. The Magpies and Balmain factions were still there – spiking the punch.
A miracle premiership would solve everything, and nothing.
People still don’t realise just how unlikely Wests Tigers’ premiership in 2005 really was. Even now, looking at that squad, their journeymen, their stars “too young”.
This was an era of tough, intimidating, powerful teams.
The Roosters, Panthers, Canterbury, Dragons and Warriors.
Wests Tigers started with a disappointing 28-12 loss to the Eels at Homebush.
This was the year Parramatta coach Brian Smith decided he was going to change the sport by starting Nathan Cayless in the second row. Bigger pack, bigger something. Who knows?
Funnily enough, by the end of the season, it was Wests Tigers’ extra-light, ball-playing forwards and sizzling backs that would win them their maiden title.
Wests Tigers had the bye in round two. Rounds three and four showed something – a flicker of magic.
The kind of thing that raises the eyebrows of journalists and commentators post-match as they walk out of the ground and think, “What the hell did I just watch?”
In round three they had the Bulldogs, the following week, the Roosters. The meanest teams in the NRL – the grand finalists of 2004.
While both wins were regarded as ‘upsets’, it was apparent that they had also simply outplayed both sides. They beat the Bulldogs at Homebush, 37-36 and then the Roosters at the SFS, 32-26.
Victories in 2005 sugar-coated any other issues the joint venture knew or didn’t know they had. Fans didn’t care. The smart ones that understood of the original agreement to move the club to Campbelltown put any worries on the back burner.
Those in Camden, Minto, Ingleburn and Rosemeadow stopped stressing.
Locals Brett Hodgson and John Skandalis were killing it, the club had legitimate superstars in Benji Marshall and Scott Prince and everything was right in the world.
Kids were Benji-stepping in the streets. Fans filled Norton Street in Leichhardt, Queen Street in Campbelltown.
Wests Tigers had just won the most unlikely of premierships.
It filled cracks. Softened wounds. And it would last for many years.
When Scott Prince left Wests Tigers, Tim Sheens didn’t go to market and replace him. It was the worst thing to happen to the club and for Benji Marshall. It forced the mercurial Kiwi wizard to be something he wasn’t.
While 2006 started with a win over rivals St George Illawarra at the Olympic Stadium, it was never meant to be.
Prince hung around for 2006 before his move to the new Gold Coast franchise but the fairy tale momentum that they rode all the way to the trophy in 2005 had swallowed them whole.
They just weren’t good enough again and had shocked so many the year prior that it just wasn’t possible again. Marshall got injured. Got injured again.
Fans started to turn on Sheens’ team selections.
After missing four finals series on the trot, Wests Tigers roared back to the preliminary final in 2010. Amazingly, for a while, they had found a halfback to help Marshall in Robert Lui.
Then came a heartbreaking semi-final loss to the Warriors in 2011. A miracle Krisnan Inu try finished their campaign.
With three minutes to play and up 20-18, Wests Tigers players watched a Shaun Johnson cross-field kick go across the SFS. Inu went up for it and fell to the ground, Wests Tigers winger Lote Tuqiri lost it through his hands and backwards to Inu who planted the ball.
They haven’t been back to the finals since.
The hangover from the hangover
What’s happened since 2011 has been a travesty. It’s been diabolical.
A piece of if it they couldn’t control.
Particularly the Magpies Juniors board – a power to themselves. No affiliation to the NSW Cup Magpies of the time or Wests Tigers.
In 2013, Wests Tigers CEO Stephen Humphreys invited me for a meeting in his offices at Concord after reading an article of mine online. He wasn’t happy with it.
He talked about ‘roadblocks’ and why Wests Tigers were doing everything they could to maintain and look after the Macarthur area.
Finally, there was an alleviation of some of the pain with the ousting of the Magpies Junior League not long ago which was replaced by ‘Wests Tigers Macarthur’.
That came seven years later. Fact is, it has been self-preservation of the highest order for most of the journey.
From roster management, CEO changeover, club-planning, junior development, coach-turnover, marketing and promotion.
Wests Ashfield buying majority stake to run the club has changed nothing and changed everything.
No longer is this Wests vs Balmain as it may have been many moons ago.
This is now Wests Tigers, Balmain and the Magpies versus the people of Sydney’s South West.
Wests Ashfield hold all the cards and are quite happy to push forward with their plans to be an Inner-City Sydney club that sometimes taps into the South West market for fans and players.
The alarming thing for those outside this bubble of thought is how quickly the regions around the Macarthur are growing.
Wests Tigers are so desperate to find short-term solutions that they have completely missed the biggest picture.
A picture that the South Sydney Rabbitohs are already feeding into. With more than 10,000 Rabbitohs fans already living in the South West, South Sydney have employees working exclusively in the area already.
This is far more than Wests Tigers simply looking after the current fans out there.
The fact is, they have the keys to a gold mine and refuse it. Maybe it’s too late and they’ve made their bed?
Campbelltown and Camden populations are set to boom to over half a million people in the next decade.
Yes that is nothing compared to all those that still live in the city. But that is just the start – it doesn’t include Liverpool, Wollondilly or Southern Highlands.
It might be time to look at the AFL and GWS Giants, who are patiently planting seeds and wanting kids not yet born.
The Rabbitohs are doing it too. They are the ones that will be wearing Giants and Rabbitohs scarves in 2035.
Another threat is the Macarthur FC A-League club which is scoffed at by some Wests Tigers fans, but they’re in for the long haul.
That’s without mentioning Western Sydney Airport to be built smack-bang between Panthers and “Wests Tigers” territory at Badgerys Creek. This will also include a new Sydney Trains rail line linking the Penrith region to Macarthur via the new airport.
Nobody wants to forget or insult Balmain, their legacy or the memories of Leichhardt Oval.
Imagine the special event games at Leichhardt in 2032 in heritage Balmain jerseys?
But it’s time Wests Tigers people started thinking 2052 instead of 2022.
They’d be shocked how quickly success comes and it wouldn’t even take that long.