How Michael Maguire Can Fix The Troubled Tigers

The Wests Tigers have completed their annual review and decided to move forward with Michael Maguire remaining as their head coach.

Maguire has won at just a 38.2% clip since taking over in 2019. While winning percentages are a poor way to assess any player or coach in isolation, the significant drop from his 55.6% at the South Sydney Rabbitohs and 75.7% at Wigan Warriors is notable. What's most concerning is Wests Tigers finishing position across the three seasons he has been at the club.

After finishing 9th in his first season, the Tigers dropped to 11th in 2020 and further still to 13th in 2021. Every year we hear about how the roster is improving which should therefore translate into more wins and a higher ladder position. Every year they have failed.

A lot went wrong throughout the 2021 season and Maguire absolutely needs to wear some of the blame for that. However, he isn't the only person at the club that needed to put their hand up during their annual review. Perhaps knowing that he isn't the only problem, the Tigers' decision-makers are giving him a chance to fix those issues in 2022.

So, now what?

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Issues in 2021

There is a three-part series to this segment but nobody wants that. It wouldn't uncover anything most people don't already know so let's keep it brief.

The Tigers have always been able to score points. They're not always 'good' points, the sort that can be constructed and repeated the following week, but their activity around the ball ensures they're often there to make the most of a favourable bounce or lazy defender.

Scoring 20.8 points per game, the Tigers finished up in the middle of the pack in attack. Daine Laurie and Adam Doueihi played out career-best seasons while Luciano Leilua and Luke Brooks had their moments with the ball throughout the year as well. You could look at the team list on Tuesday and be hopeful that David Nofoaluma, Tommy Talau, James Roberts, Jacob Liddle and Ken Maumalo could manufacture enough points to compete.

A lack of cohesion didn't help overall. Whether it be through injury, suspension, poor form or the mind-numbing decision to move their best player in Doueihi out of his best position stopped the Tigers from consistently producing repeatable actions with the ball. It translated into an inconsistent attack and, obviously, inconsistent results.

However, Wests major problem came in defence. 

This playing group wasn't interested.

Playing with all the energy in the world while in possession, the Tigers cruised through defensive sets to concede a whopping 29.8 points per game. Only the Cowboys leaked more. 

To be first in supports and first in decoys suggests this group is active around the ball. They're pushing up with teammates and running lines on the edges. Those are effort areas in which the Storm, Panthers and Roosters all feature beside the Tigers towards the top list of per-game averages.

But Wests powers as first grade footy players left them as though the Monstars of Moron Mountain were sitting in the stands. Once handing the ball over, Wests effort and ability in defence departed and they didn't have a Michael Jordan to save the day. Like the NBA superstars that had their talents sucked out of them by the Monstars in Space Jam, Wests Tigers quite literally needed to touch the Steeden in attack to regain their powers as rugby league players.

Missed tackles don't do it justice. Wests again finished in the middle of the pack missing 32 tackles per game. However, you need to be in a position to make a tackle if you're to miss it...

It's a dirty word in rugby league, but Wests Tigers defence in 2021 can't be called anything other than soft.

A lot went wrong for the Tigers in 2021 and it all started with a disinterested defence.

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What needs to go right in 2022

No surprises here: Defence needs to be the word players hear the most when returning to training on November 1.

If the Tigers are to end their finals drought and produce the sort of results many within the fan base expect, it will start with a significant improvement in defence. In the effort areas, in particular. There is only so much Maguire can do to improve the Tigers defence throughout the summer. Implementing new schemes and structures will be pointless if he can't inspire the playing group to put more into the game when not in possession.

Maguire can have more of a direct influence on what the Tigers do with the ball.

More out of the middle

The foundations of a strong middle are there for Maguire if he can develop the required skill set throughout the preseason.

One of the most important aspects of a good yardage game is having players running in pairs and supporting the ball carrier. A single player taking a hit up is easy to defend. Two forces the defence to consider a short pass and delays the third player from joining a tackle.

Alex Twal (6), Stefano Utoikamanu (5.4) and James Tamou (5.3) all average over five supports each per game. The problem is that the trio averages just three passes per game between them. 

The best teams in the competition move the ball and have done so by increasing the ball movement from their middle forwards. 

Passes per game
Passes per game
Martin Taupau
Siosiua Taukeiaho
Christian Welch
Jared Waerea-Hargreaves
Jesse Bromwich
Addin Fonua-Blake
Junior Paulo
Jarrod Wallace
James Fisher-Harris
Dale Finucane

Utoikamanu started to pass the ball more often towards the end of the season and is on track to become one of the best props in the game in the not too distant future. He is the most likely to dominate this role for the Tigers in 2022. Twal, in particular, needs to improve in this area to take his game to the next level, though.

If the Tigers can do more through the middle of the field and lay a platform for the attack, their halves will be in a much better position to improve.

Cohesion in the halves

Luke Brooks played every game in 2021 but played with four different halves partners throughout the year. It's a big reason behind the inconsistent form the Tigers displayed with the ball and the lack of improvement across the course of the year. 

It's strange to say about a bloke that is 26-years-old with 172 first grade games under his belt, but it was an encouraging development year for Brooks. He handed out 16 try assists to match his career high and did so while adopting more deception and tempo to his game. Brooks took a more methodical approach to how he handled the ball and looked to break down defences across a full set rather than isolating his influence to one big play in a set. He touched the ball more than he ever has for 60.4 touches per game.

Brooks and Doueihi started to form a dangerous partnership the more games they played together and explored both sides of the field later in the season. Brooks at pivot put Doueihi in positions to become a pass and run threat out wide and the Tigers found success through repeatable actions.

This is a prime example of Brooks dragging the Broncos half into the play which forces the two-in defender onto Luciano Leilua. Doueihi now has the option to run the ball himself or use his improving passing game to send a teammate over the line. 

Doueihi won't be available throughout the preseason and into the start of the 2022 season following his ACL injury and subsequent recovery. History suggests that he won't be back to his very best until the beginning of the 2023 season. However, the arrival of Jackson Hastings provides the Tigers with a quality half to fill the void until Doueihi returns next year.

Hastings is a little bit too similar to Brooks for the pair to be considered a long-term option. Maguire is yet to provide an indication of the role he hopes Hastings will play when the team is at full strength. However, Hastings is a willing runner of the ball and can fill similar spots on the field to Doueihi if Maguire opts to take what started to work towards the back end of 2021 into 2022. 

Landing on a backline

If Maguire can action the first two improvements, the backline will more than likely work itself out.

Wests spent the year searching for their best backline. Daine Laurie made the #1 jersey his own and David Nofoaluma played every game on the wing. But outside of those two players, nobody in the back-five had a firm grasp on their jersey week-to-week.

James Roberts, Joey Leilua, Asu Kepaoa, Moses Mbye, Tommy Talau, Michael Chee-Kam, Zach Cini, Ken Maumalo and Junior Pauga all rotated through the backline. Maguire became so desperate that he moved Doueihi out to the centres in search of a solution.

Oliver Gildart will arrive from the Super League and is likely to fill one of the centre spots. He's a quick mover and an exciting attacking centre who will benefit from having his Wigan teammate Jackson Hastings also joining the side. Still, he's an English outside back and it's hard enough to wash that reputation off at a top tier club let alone one that has struggled for a decade.

Maumalo is the most likely option on one wing while Talau finished the 2021 season strong in the centres before his injury.

Wests may well roll out an appealing backline for Round 1 next season, but how many thought the same about Laurie, Nofoaluma, Roberts, Leilua and Kepaoa this year?

A stronger yardage game through the middle and consistent clean ball from the halves will determine how much the Tigers backline improves next season. But more importantly, Maguire needs to find his first-choice 1-5 and stick with it.

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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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