Toothless Tigers: Where Has It All Gone Wrong For Wests?

We've been here and done this all before with the Wests Tigers a few times over the years.

The early-season optimism sets heightened expectations. New signings are all just what they need or sure to improve in their new surroundings. Inevitably, the Tigers fall short of the finals. Painfully short often enough for '9th' jokes to do the rounds all summer.

It has all happened a little bit too quickly in 2021, though. With just one win throughout the first seven rounds, the Tigers are among the worst teams in the NRL. Their attack isn't producing consistent and repeatable try-scoring actions and their defence, if we can call it that, is the worst of all 16 teams conceding 31.7 points per game.

They are already in the longest finals drought in the NRL and we can almost put a line through them cracking the Top 8 already in 2021. 

So, where has it all gone wrong this time, and how do they fix it?

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Where it's going wrong

Like most teams that find themselves in this predicament, Wests issues start in the middle of the field.

Only the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs run for fewer than West's 1,483 metres per game. While the average metres per game this year has dropped from 1,674 metres to 1,652 metres across the competition, it doesn't begin to justify the Tigers fall from 1,591 metres per game in 2020 to 1,483 metres in 2021.

James Tamou has really struggled. Brought in as a leader and consistent metre-eater, his 82 running metres per game is down from 138 metres per game at Penrith Panthers last season. Michael Maguire hasn't been able to start anybody beside Tamou in the middle this season either. Joe Ofahengaue (90.5m) was given the first crack in Round 1 and 2, Zane Musgrove (110.3m) didn't take his opportunity across Rounds 3-5, Stefano Utoikamanu (80m) spent a fortnight starting, and now Alex Twal has been paired Tamou in the front row.

There's nothing scary about the Tigers middle. No versatility and a lack of a ball player have made them easy to defend. Unlike, say, the Eels or Roosters, who run their forwards in pairs and manipulate the defensive line with tip-on's and passes out the back, the Tigers truck it up and little else. Defenders can confidently turn in and help on the tackle. There is no concern for the opposition in exit sets until the Tigers look a little bit wider in the direction of Luciano Leilua.

A turnover at dummy-half hasn't helped continuity in the middle. That doesn't explain how directionless they are with the ball in hand, though. That comes down to the halves and their inability to control the game and work to areas of the field. It was never more evident than in Round 5 against the Cowboys. 

Flying home and with the Cowboys left edge in tatters to the point Jake Granville defended in the centres, the Tigers failed to target that side of the field. They weren't short of opportunities inside the opposition 20-metre line. Still, Luke Brooks and Adam Doueihi couldn't set their side up to complete a shift to the right and test the Cowboys left-edge defence. Wests lack of structure and ability to engineer a well-worked try is further evidenced in their poor efficiency inside the opposition 20-metre line. No team averages more tackles inside the opposition 20-metre line per game, but only the Bulldogs score fewer points per tackle inside the opposition 20 than the Tigers' 0.51.

But a lot of Wests issues with the ball arise from what they're doing without it.

The Tigers concede an NRL-high 31.7 points per game. Most tellingly, they're 6th in missed tackles (31.0) and 13th in ineffective tackles (13.7). That suggests the Tigers aren't even in the right position often enough to miss the tackle let alone make it. 

Wests right side, in particular, is a fruitful avenue for the opposition. It's the worst defensive area in the competition conceding 18 tries through seven rounds. James Robert has looked at sea defending in the centres at times while the Ofahengaue experiment on the edge went about as well as most, certainly in Brisbane, thought it would.

Round 7 against the Sea Eagles really highlighted their frailties, though. The ease at which Tom Trbojevic broke the line through the middle of the field will have had Maguire bashing his head against the wall. Surely he doesn't need to tell his side to get their body in front of the attacking player and to tackle with their shoulder, not their hands and arms?

There is a lot going wrong on both sides of the ball for the Tigers at the moment. The question Maguire needs to answer is how do they fix it?

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Fixing the Tigers in 2021

Defensively it's simple.

Wests need to get their body in front and wear a few shots. The edges need to develop some cohesion in defence and learn to follow each other in when the middle breaks down earlier in the set. It's an effort area and Maguire can only do so much to point his players in the right direction.

Madge can have a bigger impact on how they use the ball, though.

Tamou, Musgrove, Utoikamanu and Twal are all good middle forwards in their own right. However, they're all the same middle forward. They know one way and that's straight up the guts. While that works at times, it goes directly against the way the game is trending.

That Tigers foursome has made just 31 passes between them all season. If we look at the top-tier middle's in the competition and how often they're moving the ball, we begin to see how short the Tigers are falling in this regard.

Panthers: James Fisher-Harris has passed the ball 41 times himself already this season while Isaah Yeo averages 12 passes per game.

Rabbitohs: The Rabbitohs props don't shift the ball often, but they don't need to when Cameron Murray is in the middle making seven passes per game.

Roosters: Isaac Liu and Siosiua Taukeiaho have both made over 20 passes already this season, and Victor Radley has averaged an outrageous 24 passes per game since his return at lock.

Eels: Junior Paulo is the best ball-playing prop in the NRL, and Nathan Brown has come along leaps and bounds to average eight passes per game this season.

Maguire is trying to get the Tigers on the right path by naming Ofahengaue at lock for Round 8. He's a better ball-player than Twal and any other Wests middle forward, but he's far from good. They will need more and using Moses Mbye in a Tyrone Peachey style role is something worth exploring more. At the very least, Mbye can act as a pivot through the middle when Wests are looking to shift the ball wide in a hurry.

The lack of those shifts so far have significantly reduced the impact Doueihi is having on games. He's 191cm and 95kg and a strong runner of the ball. He should be put in positions similar to Jack Wighton is at the Raiders and ask questions of the defence. At the moment, he isn't being given the space often enough with the defensive line given ample time to move up during Wests laboured shifts across the field. 

You can see how the defence is forced to cave in once Doueihi gets over the advantage line in this try here:

It's all about Luciano Leilua on the other side of the field. He has improved further as a ball-player this season and has found plenty of success with the ball in his hands despite not always being put into the best positions. A barnstorming Leilua with Daine Laurie (who has been fantastic since joining the club) in shape out the back should be a left-edge attack that strikes fear into the opposition. Again, it's not occurring often enough to develop.

Brooks, in particular, needs to action repeatable plays that can be thrown at the defence in good ball areas: Train the defence by playing out the back to Laurie on a left shift before hitting Leilua on an inside line the following shift; get forward behind a quick play-the-ball with Laurie on his inside shoulder and react to the trailing marker and A defender; or use a strong Leulia carry to force defenders into the tackle and explore down the short side. 

The Tigers have a lot of attacking talent, which is why they do manage to pile up points at times, but the missing pieces - the ball-player in the middle, organising half, and structured attack that works to areas - stop them from producing consistently.

It starts with the defence for the Tigers; they need to get that right before anything else. From there, adjusting to the times and employing a middle that can speed up their shifts to the edge will open things up for Brooks and Doueihi, allowing them to make the most of what is an exciting back five.

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Crystal Ball

Wests Tigers have the third-easiest remaining schedule, so there is hope for a turnaround across the second half of the season. The Stats Insider Futures Model isn't tipping it, though.

Top 4
Top 8
Most Losses
Futures Model Projections

This squad is too good to finish with the wooden spoon, but it can't be ruled out with what we've seen so far in 2021. Conceding 31.7 points per game will certainly keep them in the conversation if they don't turn it around soon. Wests attack won't improve when spending that much time standing behind their own posts, either.

The goal from here needs to be a Top 10 finish and to be a chance at the Top 8 in Round 20-21. They're not going to play finals football this season, but being in the conversation will be a promising recovery from here. 

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Jason Oliver

As far as Jason is concerned, there is no better time of year than March through June. An overlap of the NBA and NRL seasons offer up daily opportunities to find an edge and fund the ever-increasing number of sports streaming services he subscribes to. If there's an underdog worth taking in either code, he'll be on it.

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