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A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Wests Tigers

Good lord, the absolute scale of the mess of this football club is immense. Considering the Tigers finished thirteenth, and not last, with an 8-16 record and -214 points difference, it seems like an overreaction in isolation. But for a Sydney club that hasn’t played in the finals since 2011, and bearing in mind there’s a 50/50 chance of making the finals every year, tempers are rising. There’s only so many ninth and fourteenth places that people will accept, without a single indication that things will genuinely improve, before they give up. Or at least get very angry on social media and turn on each other like rabid dogs.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

Despite this, there’s nothing to really recommend the Tigers this year. They’re pinning their hopes on Luke Brooks, a player I have time for, especially based on his 2019 production, but who struggled last year and the club doesn’t seem to be particularly setting him up for glory in 2021. James Tamou is a good signing but Wests need so much more. Maguire might be the man to steer the ship in current circumstances and has a reasonable record of extracting the best out of what he’s been given.

There’s just so much nothing in the roster – all the serious talents have gravitated elsewhere, not least Harry Grant – that it’s difficult to see how the Tigers plan to break out of the rut. Perhaps Edene Gebbie or Joey Leilua will get his head in the game. Maybe Daine Laurie will deliver earlier. Maybe, perhaps and it’s all relying on potential, not proven performance. Fundamentally, they were a bottom half team last season, they’ve lost their best player and during the off-season, they haven’t improved as much as the teams around them or even some of the teams below them.

While the level of performance was correctly forecast, I don’t think it accurately describes the 2021 Wests Tigers experience. The roster has some sparkles – Doueihi (who jumped up in my reckoning at least), Utoikamanu, Laurie, Mikaele, Leilua and so on – and they were surrounded by guys who largely couldn’t be bothered.

In some part, blame for that rests with Michael Maguire. He’s lost 30 class Elo rating points since starting at the Tigers, so it’s not quite the certainty for the guillotine that 50 points would imply but there’s definitely pressure on. When you combine his seeming inability to do the job with the Tigers propaganda documentary in which Maguire had editing rights, this reflects poorly on upper management who, at the time of writing, do not appear to be taking action or under any pressure themselves. I’ve said before that Justin Pascoe should be gone and I don’t think 2021 showed any reason to change that, not least because it was so similar to what we’ve seen previously (I’m almost certain I’ve said before that ‘there’s only so many ninth places people will tolerate’ before and yet here we are).

What happened

One of Maguire’s more baffling moves mid-year was to shift Adam Doueihi from five-eighth to centre to make room for Origin superstar*, Moses Mbye.

The thing is that it kind of worked. The Tigers went 3-4 during this period, with wins over an Origin-depleted Panthers, Knights and Dragons and losses to Souths, Parra, Melbourne and, for some reason, the New Zealand-Central Coast Warriors. Putting Doueihi back to 6 maybe, maybe changes one of those outcomes. So perhaps it’s less “worked” and more “wasn’t a total disaster”. That extra win was still two short of what the Tigers needed to make the finals.

But the numbers show a different story. The Tigers gave up 20 Taylors in production – roughly 5% of the average NRL team’s output – by switching Doueihi, just in his contribution alone. That might not sound like a lot but losing 20 Taylors moves the Tigers’ average output from eleventh best in the league to fifteenth, wedged between the Broncos and the Bulldogs. That’s without considering that Mbye was worse at five-eighth than any of the centres were at playing centre. It was, truly, a baffling decision and one that should be exhibit A in the trial of Michael Maguire.

How about some good news? Look at these guys:

All those young guys I cited before don’t look like they were actually quite that productive but still better than most of the team. Unlike last year, where only six Tigers exceeded the league average TPR mark, this year ten did. So that’s progress and at least the youngsters have time on their side.

There’s always next year

If the problem the Tigers had was assembling a good, young core of a football team, then it’d be problem solved. Unfortunately, every team has a good, young core of players to build around. Some of the teams coming up from behind them have very good young players. The actual problem is taking that and building on it to create a productive, winning football team. Not many clubs manage it and, as I’ve been saying for some time now, the Tigers do not have what it takes in their front office to succeed. Dumb luck would have a NRL team in the finals at least once in a decade – the Titans have done it twice with less than twelve wins – and the Tigers can’t even hurdle that bar.

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse.

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.

Summary

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.

What happened

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:

  1. David Nofoaluma (902 Ty / .181 TPR / 1.6 WARG)
  2. Adam Doueihi (780 / .124 / 1.1)
  3. Benji Marshall (660 / .176 / 1.2)
  4. Josh Aloiai (608 / .129 / 0.9)
  5. Luciano Leilua (567 / .115 / 0.7)
  6. Luke Brooks (458 / .116 / 0.6)
  7. 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.

What’s next

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?

Club Report – Wests Tigers

wst-badgeBackground

Wests Tigers have won one premiership. The year was 2005 and a young Benji Marshall side-stepped an entire league to lead his team to an extremely unlikely victory over grand final debutants, the North Queensland Cowboys. The Tigers had finished the regular season in fourth, behind the Eels, Broncos and Dragons.

The Tigers were formed in 2000 from a merger of the Western Suburbs Magpies, a team the NSWRL had been trying to get rid of for years, and the Balmain Tigers. The resulting joint venture has struggled for success beyond their fairytale year but never have hit the rock bottom of receiving a wooden spoon. It’s been six years since the Tigers featured in the finals and a year or two of re-building is ahead before they may make another appearance.

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