A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Wests Tigers
I stopped picking where I thought teams would finish pre-season because a) it’s a ridiculous crap shoot and b) I kept picking the Tigers to finish in the bottom four and they kept finishing ninth. To finish eleventh in 2020 was poor, even by their own expectations, and mine:
The Tigers were the biggest movers in the off-season and showed unusual astuteness in their acquisitions: Leilua times two, Adam Doueihi, Walters and maybe Harry Grant (.266 TPR in 2019’s QCup) will land.
The projections and the sims lock in a knife-edge battle for the Tigers to take that final step from ninth to eighth. Exactly 50% chance of making the finals, exactly 12.0 wins projected and an average finishing position of 8.6. I’m not ready to make them a lock but this is the best chance Wests have had in a long time.
I wasn’t that keen on Adam Doueihi or Leilua, Joey but Leilua, Luciano proved to be a master stroke. Temporarily offloading Momirovski for the breakout player of the 2020 NRL season was another. Nonetheless, it just didn’t come together for the Tigers.
Wests Tigers finished eleventh on the ladder, the best of the 7-13 teams with a marginally more respectable -65 points difference. A few early wins over teams that turned out to be terrible gave some false promise, none moreso than their 48-0 demolition of the Broncos in round 10, which landed the Tigers in a temporary seventh place with a 5-5 record. The draw was decidedly more difficult in the back half and the Tigers won only two of their last ten. Benji Marshall, Chris Lawrence, Harry Grant, Dylan Smith, Elijah Taylor, Matt Eisenhuth, Robert Jennings and Oliver Clark are not coming back.
I’m in somewhat of an awkward position because the player data I use goes back to 2013. Given that the Tigers were last good in 2010 and 2011, this means that we don’t have any good Tigers teams to compare the current squad to. It’s less of what’s missing, so much as what do they actually have? The answer is not a lot.
The most productive seven or eight players on each team are responsible for over 50% of the team’s total production. I call these players the engine. In 2020, the Tigers generated 8,184 Taylors, enough for tenth best in the league. The top seven players combined for 4,332 Taylors. They were:
- David Nofoaluma (902 Ty / .181 TPR / 1.6 WARG)
- Adam Doueihi (780 / .124 / 1.1)
- Benji Marshall (660 / .176 / 1.2)
- Josh Aloiai (608 / .129 / 0.9)
- Luciano Leilua (567 / .115 / 0.7)
- Luke Brooks (458 / .116 / 0.6)
- Luke Garner (384 / .096 / 0.4)
For the record, Harry Grant was eighth, playing in a position that typically does not generate much production (357 / .174 / 0.6). He finished third by WARG of all hookers.
Let’s break down the engine into its individual components:
- David Nofoaluma was the best winger by WARG in 2020 but we need to bear in mind that these player ratings don’t measure defensive capability very well. Let’s temper the former fact with his middling, but still positive, 1.0 Net Points Responsible For per game.
- Out of the twelve players who started ten or more games at fullback, Adam Doueihi ranked ninth by TPR. He may be starter calibre but he’s not one of the elites.
- Benji Marshall had a good season, finishing seventh by WARG of all halves coupled with a very respectable 5.1 Net Points Responsible For per game, sixth best in the league. He is accorded these ratings despite some questionable decision making with the ball in hand. Likely because of this and his advanced age, Marshall is not having his contract renewed.
- Josh Aloiai made five errors and missed eighteen tackles in 890 minutes on the field and averaged 136m per game with 11.8 hit ups. He’s had a career year, accumulating 0.9 WARG, exceeding his previous personal best of 0.5 set last year.
- Luciano Leilua was good, actually.
- Luke Brooks had an average season, a far cry from his exceptional performances in 2019. He is now on the outer at the Tigers, dropped during the season. Quite who the Tigers and Michael Maguire think is going to do a better job on their roster (or even on the open market) is up for debate.
- The average TPR in 2020 was .110. Luke Garner rated .096 or 15 pips below league average.
Bearing in mind that these are the most productive players on the Tigers’ roster and that Nofoaluma is likely to regress to mean next year, Marshall is off to Super League or retirement, management don’t care for Luke Brooks and certainly don’t seem to be able to get the best out of him, Doueihi is a middling fullback at best, all you’re really left with is a few hard workers and Luciano Leilua. It’s hardly the stuff premierships are made of.
While the Tigers were a little unlucky, with a Pythagorean expectation of 8.6 wins in 2020 for only seven actual wins, even if they’d performed at expectation, they would have only ended up… ninth.
Finishing ninth in three of the last five seasons and not making the finals since 2011 shows a commitment to mediocrity that’s stronger than most clubs’ attempts to strive for excellence. Blind luck would have a team in the finals more often than that. Eventually, it will break right for the Tigers – that’s how probability works – but given how many truly awful teams there were this season, it’s hard to imagine them getting a better opportunity than 2020 to break the duck.
The Wests Tigers are not unlike the city of Canberra: you have to pay overs to get anyone to come there and they end up leaving after two years anyway. I wonder how much the salary floor (the minimum amount the clubs must spend of salary cap each year) contributes to their malaise. If there’s no one particularly talented on the roster and you can’t attract any attention from the league’s top thirty players, how do you find a way to spend up to the floor? One way is to front load a contract for Josh Reynolds at $750,000 and hope that leads to something.
It didn’t. The roster is having a big broom put through it, with two retirements and six more players not returning for 2021 with rumours of still more being shopped around. How the Tigers fill this gap is obviously critical to their future success. Harry Grant returning to the Storm is not ideal and if Cam Smith hangs around at Melbourne, Wests would be mad not to throw the chequebook and then some at Grant. Josh Addo-Carr, one of the best in the game on the wing, is going to get big bucks to pull on the number one jersey. This is a roll of the dice but minting fullbacks out of wingers might be 2021’s minting five-eighths out of outside backs.
There’s still some question marks over the club’s management. That Justin Pascoe was dumb enough to get caught cheating the salary cap should have ended his career. To be clear, I’m not saying he should lose his job for cheating; he should lose it because he wasn’t careful or smart enough to not get caught. After serving a six month deregistration, he’s still at the club, in the top job and seemingly under no pressure. Michael Maguire’s tenure hasn’t delivered much in the way of results. We can debate how much of that is his failings and how much of that is the troops under his command but, to break out an extremely tired cliche, it’s a results driven business. How many more ninth place finishes do either of them get?