Position after 13 rounds: 4th
Competition points: 16
Wow – everyone’s NRL punching bags and seemingly on the ropes just six weeks into the 2012 season, Tim Sheens’s players have dragged themselves off the canvas and are now eyeing holding the championship title belt on the last Sunday in September. And who would scoff at that?
It has been a remarkable turnaround by the Tigers who were lucky winners when scraping home in golden point over the Sharks in their season opener, before tumbling to near the bottom of the ladder with five straight losses. A couple were dismal, inept efforts – the 36-12 thrashing at the hands of the Dragons in Round 3; and losing 30-16 to the Raiders in Campbelltown.
But since then it’s like someone has removed the thorn from their paw. They’ve roared back into contention, winning six in a row, finding exactly the sort of form that had a procession of experts – and cluey bookmakers – assigning them the competition favourites tag in the pre-season.
However, a good look at their stats in key areas shows there’s still a lot of work to do if they’re to threaten the best teams in September. For a side with a good reputation for attack it may surprise to learn the Tigers are making just the second-fewest line-breaks (3.5) and the fourth-fewest metres in games each week (1275).
Are Things Going to Plan? Ever since Sunday April 15 they have been. That’s when the Tigers kick-started their current six-game winning streak with a 30-nil victory over the Panthers in Penrith. Since then they’ve added the scalps of the Eels and Titans (both by one point), Warriors (by just two points), Cowboys and Raiders – their most recent 80 minutes a 40-nil return-bout pummelling of the Raiders in Canberra in Round 13.
Throw in their golden-point win over the Sharks in Round 1 and that’s three games they’ve won by one point, plus another by two points. Countering that, they’ve lost one game by one point (to the Rabbitohs, Round 5). So they have had their share of Lady Luck.
Roster continuity has been a problem, especially in the backs – and that all started when highly touted rookie fullback James Tedesco was carried off with a season-ending knee injury in Round 1. Tedesco’s extended absence, and some experimentation by Sheens, has seen them use four different players in each of the key positions of fullback, five-eighth and halfback. That’s not desirable for any team, let alone a would-be premiership contender. Tim Moltzen has played three games in the No.7 and nine at fullback. Others who have been unsettled include Tom Humble, Jacob Miller (just one game), Blake Ayshford, Chris Lawrence – and Benji Marshall. Their superstar has played eight games at five-eighth and four in the No.7, where he’s most likely to stay given Curtis Sironen’s excellent start to his NRL career.
Injury Front… Given their troubles with personnel the Tigers have done a mighty job – so far they have ploughed through 27 players, the equal most by any side.
James Tedesco’s injury was a huge kick in the guts but their biggest blow was losing punishing back-rower Gareth Ellis to a broken foot midway through their Round 5 loss to the Rabbitohs. The star Englishman is out indefinitely, with sources hopeful he’ll be available come the semi-finals.
Lote Tuqiri missed their opening four games; Keith Galloway and Chris Heighington have each missed four games; fellow winger Matt Utai spent eight weeks on the sidelines after straining knee ligaments; promising prop Matt Groat has played just seven games after picking up a knee injury but is due back in Round 16; while they get Ray Cashmere back next week after four weeks off with a calf complaint.
If Only… They hadn’t capitulated to the Raiders after leading 12-10 at halftime in Campbelltown in Round 4. Minus suspended captain Robbie Farah the Tigers looked to be cruising but were swamped 20-4 in the second half to register their third loss in a row.
And surrendering two tries to Souths inside the final four minutes to send their Round 5 game into golden point – which they then lost – was a bitter pill.
Give them those four competition points and the Tigers would be in outright second place on the ladder!
Who’s Flying… Benji Marshall – he ranks second for try assists (19) behind Cooper Cronk overall, equal second for line-break assists (12) and has made five line-breaks. Also, he leads his side for tackle busts (37). And he’s a dead-eye from the sideline, with 81 per cent success rate on conversions (third best).
Rookie prop Aaron Woods has had the best past six weeks by any forward in the comp: he is averaging 16 hit-ups and 137 metres, with 15 offloads.
Beau Ryan continues to impress with his versatility, most recently shifting from the right wing to left centre. Ryan has scored seven tries, runs 106 metres a week and has 33 tackle-breaks so far.
Liam Fulton is powering through his defensive work (40 tackles a game); fullback Moltzen is starting to find open space often (six line-breaks); and Matt Utai is proving tough to contain, with six tackle-breaks per game.
The team concedes the fewest offloads each week (just nine).
Needs To Lift… Captain Robbie Farah is playing okay but he’s certainly capable of a lot more than the two try assists he’s conjured so far. He needs to build that figure dramatically otherwise the pressure will mount on Marshall to keep coming up with the big plays. Last year Farah was close to Marshall in the creativity stakes, making 19 try assists to Benji’s 24. And in 2010 Farah led the way with 25 to Marshall’s 23. On those numbers he’s under-performing.
Elsewhere, as a team the Tigers must make the big tackles when required – they surrender the second-most line-breaks (5.2).
Assistant Coach Steve Georgallis tells NRL.com... “We were about a three-out-of-10 at the start of the year and we are about an eight now, so what does that make us? About a five-and-a-half?” he jokes.
“We’re happy with the improvement in our defence and being patient and winning the arm wrestle – we’ve added that to our game.
“Beau Ryan has been going great for us, he’s scored a few tries from kicks and is now doing well in the centres – and Benji at No.7 just keeps getting better and better.
“Our plan is to get better in attack through the halves, and with young Curtis Sironen coming through well it’s looking good. We just need to constantly come up with the right plays on the opposition tryline. And in defence we need to just concentrate on our line speed.
“No, we’re about a seven (out of 10) at the moment… and that’s pretty much where we want to be.”
Predicted Finish… The Tigers meet some stiff opposition in the run to the finals although their hard games are spaced apart. They meet the Storm and Bulldogs twice, plus the Cowboys and Rabbitohs. Those tough opponents are balanced out (at least based on current form) by games against the Roosters (twice), plus the Eels, Knights and Panthers. We’ll give them a conservative seven wins from here in, which should be good enough for sixth place.
Under-20s… The Tiger cubs are flying high in second place, just one competition point off the ladder-leading Panthers. They’ve built their campaign around a solid defence – their 242 points conceded are just three points shy of the fewest in the comp. And they could easily have been leading the competition had they not stumbled to a 38-36 loss to the 14th-placed Cowboys in Round 12. Halfback Jacob Miller has been their star – he has made 18 try assists and 13 line-break assists (to co-lead the NYC comp in both categories) plus 45 tackle busts. Winger David Nofoaluma has been outstanding too – he ranks second in the NYC for tackle-breaks (122), has crossed for 10 tries and is averaging 147 metres a game.