Can the Tigers Dig their way out of a DMC Death Spiral?
by B.C. Taylor
The final shot of the Wests Tigers Centre of Excellence fly-through video is memorable. Panning out, over the field- the long, modern structure rising from the hill. The showpiece reveals every professional facility imaginable- pools, saunas, an elite gym. Extensive spacings for administrative and media staff. Even sleeping pods. A far cry from the current Concord Oval facilities, the weary week-to-week training home of the long-suffering Tigers.
What good will the shining new facility do? Is it any more use than an expensive suit on a cheap, blathering politician? Time will tell. There are many more questions than these to be raised. None bigger than- who are the Wests Tigers? The final game of the season was a desolate sight for hurting fans. 38-0, against the last-placed Bulldogs. But it wasn’t so much the scoreline as it was the lack of spirit. The lack of fight. The lack of soul.
The joint-venture club are not short of historical inspiration when it comes to identity. Before the merge, there was the cheeky Elias and the grit and drive of Pearce, Roach, and Sironen, for Balmain. The hard-nosed lot from Lidcombe- Donnelly, Kelly, and a young lad of Lithuanian background, Tommy Raudonikis. After the merge, the ’05 freewheelers. Marshall, Farah, Skandalis, Richards. The best clubs (with the best cultures, by no coincidence), draw who they are, from who has come before. They build on their history, however recent it might be. It is entwined with their identity.
That is not to say they play antiquated football. Their play styles are duly aligned with the modern rules, and still very much dependent on coaching staff and playing roster. But you know exactly who these clubs are, of recent years – the Storm, the Roosters, Penrith, South Sydney, Manly. Players know where they are going. They know what they are stepping into. In a strange way, these very modern clubs feel old. Before you talk of performance centres, you must talk of the people who will walk into them. What, who, they represent.
Wests Tigers are not short of heroes. But, it cannot be denied- they were the heroes of separate clubs. Now, the distinctiveness of the ’05 dazzle seems all the more remarkable. Young kids, full of confidence and bite, and flair. And yet, you don’t make it to a grand final without playing for each other, without soul. For every flick pass and chip kick, there was a defensive effort.
They had it then. An exciting brand, on and off the field, distinguishable from all the rest. And history? Those kids made their own history. They were their own heroes. Perhaps that might’ve been an unforeseen long term issue- through no fault of the playing group. Once the excitement disappeared, once the players moved on, the team began to gradually slip into the husk of a memory – the one that lingers today. Benji, Robbie, Chris Lawrence and all the rest, kept the club buoyant enough to fend off prolonged questioning. Success was short and sweet, and then it disappeared altogether.
The Wests Tigers need to start again. They need to somehow feel old, to feel as if they are a worthy destination. A glaring contrast, despite less success in recent times, are the Canterbury Bulldogs. We know who the Bulldogs are. The gritty Dogs will be back. The signings are coming. A club with great tradition will only stay down for so long. The Tigers need that. They need to imprint themselves on the minds of the rugby league world. An impression that lasts, through coaches, through roster changes, through wins and losses. No matter the style, the Tigers need soul.
How? Throw up a few statues? It probably wouldnt hurt, but no. They need look no further than two of the clubs recently mentioned- South Sydney and Penrith. And Wests are in a better position than both of those clubs were at their lowest ebb. Since returning to the competition, the Rabbitohs had limped through the early-mid 2000’s. Their fortunes changed, perhaps literally, with the successful, high-profile ownership bid of Russell Crowe. From the outside, the club felt energised and bold. Leaning on a large junior participation base, they angled for the one marquee signing that would break the levee.
It came in 2006- Roy Asotasi. Burgess and Inglis followed in the coming years. Sponsors flushed in, facilities were improved. South Sydney became a credible destination. It did not come quickly, but it came. Asotasi was not there when the premiership drought was broken in 2014. But Souths supporters, and those around the club, knew his signing was pivotal. On that fateful 2014 night, many of them might’ve cast a thought back to the slow, slow build, and the times they thought it would never come. Before Crowe’s arrival, and all the opportunities that came with it, the dreams of Rabbitohs fans were precisely that- dreams. There was no performance centre. A tired administration. On-field embarrassment.
More recently, the Penrith Panthers have surged to constant success off the back of superb junior development programs. Phil Gould’s oft-ridiculed ‘five-year’ plan certainly took longer than intended, but its mark on the Panthers’ recent success is indisputably clear. Penrith will be contenders for the foreseeable future. Lean years followed the ’03 grand final victory. Gould was brought in, in 2011, to help rebuild the club. He instigated the now envied junior academy. The Penrith junior nursery cuts a wide swathe across western Sydney. They have used it to their advantage.
Like the Rabbitohs, they readily and keenly develop juniors. But these golden young talents are not often poached, because the clubs have become desirous locations. High-quality facilities, strong club culture and identity, await them. The Tigers don’t need a major ownership upheaval or a marquee signing to instigate the development of better facilities. A sterling excellence centre has just been built. They already have an incredibly rich talent pool. In their leanest years, the Rabbitohs and Penrith did not go close to bringing through juniors the calibre of Moses, Brooks, Tedesco and Woods.
The ‘big four’ they were, then. A media exaggeration, but it was no small feat. All but Brooks left. What if they have stayed, would the club be constantly pushing post-season success? The Wests Tigers have everything they need to become one of the great clubs of the game. They are in a better position than they know. The juniors will come, and the juniors will stay, if they can see a vision. If they can feel a culture, and a soul. If they can believe they are one small part of something big. Something unbelievable, to those who don’t see the inner sanctum. The big-name players will sign for a steady coach, and a worthy plan. Above all else- a worthy reason.
The Wests Tigers lie somewhere between that shining ’05 night, and the blood and rumble of their past legends. It is beyond time for them to not be Balmain, or Magpies legends- but Wests Tigers legends. That responsibility lies on the current organisation.
Build it, so we know where you have come from.
Build it, so we know who you will be.
The Liverpool-Campbelltown corridor is fertile rugby league land. Plant the seeds. Have the young kids know it will be a storied club by the time they arrive. They will emerge. Laurie, Doueihi, and big Stefano Utoikamanu are the foundation. It can all begin, whenever they decide to define themselves. A centre of excellence is not a surety of success. But it speaks to a desire, for success. There is much to do before that success comes. Nonetheless, the glory will be there, waiting. A flicker on the hill.
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