Adrian Proszenko August 05, 2012
In the hot seat … Tim Sheens has seen it all in his 10 years at the Tigers. Photo: Getty Images
Just as James Magnussen failed to meet expectations in London, the Wests Tigers have also struggled to live up to the hype, writes Adrian Proszenko.
The Tigers are the James Magnussen of the NRL.
From the moment they belly-flopped against the Warriors in last year's final series, we have been bracing ourselves. Punters and pundits got on board. And understandably so.
This was a team led by the Australian coach, the New Zealand captain and, even before Robbie Farah proved he possessed those mythical properties that make an ''Origin player'', a roster the envy of their rivals. How could you possibly add Adam Blair to an all-star pack containing Gareth Ellis, Aaron Woods, Keith Galloway, Chris Heighington and go backwards?
The front office also appeared in order. In the days after David Gallop's shock resignation as ARL Commission chief executive, we asked NSW Rugby League chairman John Chalk - the bloke who reads out the Blues Origin squad - who should run the game. His response: ''If you're looking at someone with corporate history and a feeling for the game, you couldn't go past [Tigers boss] Stephen Humphreys. At one stage he was a [senior executive] for British Airways and Qantas, played first grade rugby league and has a passion for it. He's very astute, very well thought of.''
With the back office and the back row in order, it seemed the stars had aligned. While the Chinese zodiac suggested 2012 was the year of the dragon, in league terms the signs pointed towards the other joint-venture outfit. So when Ray Cashmere was plucked from the obscurity of the Illawarra Cutters mid-season, the veteran forward felt like he had won footy's version of lotto, even if the gig did not pay as much as his job in the mines.
''I found myself daydreaming of what may be,'' he said of a potential premiership. Yet a cursory glance at the ladder suggests this is unlikely. Given they shared eighth spot heading into this round - 10th once for and against are taken into account - it's too early to be writing the Tigers' obituary. Like Magnussen, the Tigers could still finish more scud than dud. But if their next streak is not a winning one - they have already compiled sequences of five consecutive losses and seven consecutive wins this year - this will be another wasted campaign.
''It's been a weird season. Good and bad. Full of streaks, that sort of thing,'' Cashmere said. ''Inconsistent is the best way to put it.''
When they get it right, no one does it better. With Benji Marshall and Farah firing, there's no better team to watch and this is reflected in the ratings. They are the top-rating Sydney team on Fox Sports's live coverage, dragging in an average of more than 320,000 viewers from their six appearances on the channel. But too often they go for the flick pass when a regulation one will suffice. It's flashy when it comes off, frivolous when it doesn't.
''I'm sick and tired of hearing people say they love watching the Tigers play,'' legendary Balmain rake Benny Elias said. ''People might not like watching the Storm play but they're usually up the top of the ladder. The Bulldogs may not be pretty, but they get the job done as well.''
The Tigers make for good TV in more ways than one. When Matthew Johns had the temerity to grill Farah over their slow start to the season, the Tigers captain described the NRL On Fox interview as an ''ambush''.
''My jaw dropped. I was riveted,'' Fox Sports boss Gary Burns said of the exchange. ''People were fascinated by it. It was hypnotic television; you couldn't take your eyes off it.'' Burns, a man who has been in the sports broadcasting game for almost 25 years, added: ''That was some of the best television I've ever been involved with.''
Some of the questions posed by Johns - delivered with a directness sometimes missing from the Tigers attack - remain. Are they a one (or two) man team? Have they mucked up their retention and recruitment? Have they left their run too late? Are they paper Tigers?
In fairness, there have been mitigating circumstances. Fullback James Tedesco went down in game one and has not been seen since. Lote Tuqiri is another who will not play again this year. Ditto Curtis Sironen, while key forwards Ellis and Galloway are only just returning from long lay-offs. And the tragic death of Farah's mother has had an undoubted impact on the skipper and his side.
But there have been plenty of things they can control. Debate still rages over who got the rough end of the pineapple when Blair came in and Bryce Gibbs and Andrew Fifita went out. The cast-offs have been outstanding at Cronulla, while Blair has not yet lived up to his hefty price tag.
Asked if criticism of the former Storm star was unfair, fellow forward Ben Murdoch-Masila replied: ''A little bit. Adam Blair has been a bit like [Nathan] Hindmarsh, he's been doing extra work. He's fitted in real good and is doing a good job for us.''
While insiders insist the playing group is tight, in some respects it is a club divided. The first cracks in the marriage between Balmain and Western Suburbs have appeared. Players dropped from the senior squad now do their penance with the Balmain-Ryde Eastwood Tigers, while the club's other NSW Cup feeder team, Western Suburbs, have been ignored. The result has seen the Magpies remain winless from 19 starts in 2012 as powerbrokers entertain the prospect of entering one side in next year's competition. Black and White diehards, sensing the death of their team, are up in arms.
''We're still in talks on that subject,'' Mike Bailey, the chairman of Wests Ashfield Leagues Club, said. ''We're prepared to sit, to listen and to contribute with a view to getting the best results for all clubs concerned including the joint-venture, Balmain and Wests Magpies.''
Bailey, who alternates in the role of Tigers chairman with current appointee David Trodden, added: ''If - and I underline if and put it in capital letters - IF we do go ahead with a single State Cup side … we'd like to make a decision as soon as possible.''
More and more players have had to be brought up from reggies to cover for those in the casualty ward. ''We haven't fielded a full-strength team this year,'' Murdoch-Masila said. Some of the key troops have returned but there is no room for error - a loss to a Parramatta side that trounced the Broncos in Brisbane could be a season-ending one. ''We need to keep winning. You win every game and you're in the finals,'' forward Matt Bell said. ''It's easier said than done but we're confident we can do it.''
They have done it before. They were largely written off in 2005 - the same betting agency that installed the Tigers as pre-season favourites installed them as $151 outsiders that year - yet they completed a lap of honour. Tim Sheens has seen it all before. ''It's a five-game series and each one is important,'' he said. ''There are 10 points on offer and we've just got to play them out. Our destiny is in our own hands.''
With the Magnussen-style pressure off, it remains to be seen if they've hit the wall, or are primed to touch it first.