Phil Hughes. Don’t go there.

You’ve got to admire a tenacious and dedicated bloke like Phil Hughes. If you don’t agree, just take a look back at his career thus far under the oppressive eye of the often-demanding Australian cricketing public.

His time on the scene has been a mosaic of gut-busting scraps for credit on the back of demoralising pitfalls, highly-spirited displays of steel in the face of adversity and symbolic bird-flipping with the willow to the disbelievers.

His helter-skelter batting mojo has been widely questioned and collectively bagged and the caboose of his pastoral technique kicked ad infinitum. Each time he’s been on the back page next to a guillotine, Hughes has taken it firmly on the chin and grafted his way back into calculations by throwing the kitchen sink at his shortcomings.

The Macksville Mauler has never been afraid to put his modus operandi up on the hoist for re-tootling, all in the name of getting back to contribute to the cause at national level.

Phil Hughes. Not pregnant.

There’s been rebuilding, rehashing and restyling, with special attention given to the short ball, the wide ball, the full ball and the spinning ball. There’s been head reading, one-on-one tutoring and tactical re-booting. He’s buggered off overseas, came back to Sydney, returned to Macksville, played some grade cricket and shifted interstate.

The whole time he’s been following the educated public’s orders on what he needs to improve on, he’s maintained a quiet dignity, an unassuming nature and a willingness to go and get his hands dirty, all in the name of rising his average by a stock point or two and getting his scone back on the radar.

It’s hard not to like the bloke, and frankly, he deserves better. It is for this reason that I am imploring the selectors to never pick him for Australia again.

Hughes has been dragged through enough public sludge and is far too admirable to have another chapter added to his story of international tragedy and torment.

I’m sure many would disagree, especially the untrained eyes not privy to past wounds and those from the ‘corner turned’ line of thinking who have been seduced by his new-look game and scattering of fine innings so far this summer. With one ton and three sparkler 50s across all forms, including a couple on the foliage of the Gabba, you could be forgiven for believing this is the Hughes we’ve been impatiently waiting upon.

Sure, I attest that he probably appears heavily pregnant with a litter of oversized scores at the moment. But don’t be fooled.

What appears as an 8 month, third trimester bulging bump of potential top-line plundering and match-winning produce under the Hughes vest is nothing more than a pillow full of duck feathers.

His magical and seemingly never-ending domestic domination is only transferable at international level for painfully cautious innings for himself, ants-pants anxiety for Australian devotees and a basket full of match-scenario catching practice for Martin Guptill.

Wearing the Baggy Green is the Hughes kryptonite. It renders his deadeye dead and his inflated crease presence wilted before totally sucking any semblance of good form from his body. He doesn’t deserve to deal with its burden and should be given the respite from it he’s worked for.

So if the South African or Sri Lankan quicks get the upper hand this summer and our top order splutters, let’s lobby the selectors to forget the team and think of the wellbeing of Hughes first and foremost.

John Inverarity and his panel need to do the right thing by an honest, hard-working Aussie fella who deserves some good luck and positive vibes.

When it comes to Phil Hughes: Don’t go there.

Australasian rugby’s 120 year swap meet

In the aftermath of the Brisbane Bledisloe break-even, my celebratory crooning of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ was abruptly muted by a snappy Steve Hansen jab to the patriotic solar plexus.

Obviously sick to death of fielding questions about the grouse feats of Aussie Mike Harris, the All Blacks coach retorted with a few choice lines about Australia’s penchant for chucking second-tier Kiwi jumbucks in the swag and shipping them back across the Tasman.

Understandably, he doesn’t like the thought of having some of his choice livestock grazing inside the enemy paddock and boosting the standard of the Australian flock, nor does he enjoy when some of them are brazenly re-branded in gold and passed off as Vegemite kids.

I’m cool with that notion. Nobody likes to see an essay that is copy-and-pasted from Google, nor does anybody like to see the English cricket team full of South Africans. And most of all, nobody likes having their stuff pinched.

This got me thinking: is this hand-me-down arrangement we have with our cousins a two-way street?

In an attempt to brain this poser, I’ve used my time at work this week wisely by going over the New Zealand honour roll for any ‘discrepancies’ regarding re-badged produce that once wore the stamp of the boxing kangaroo.

In news that will skyrocket the Wallaby rugby ego: I managed to find some Australian All Blacks!

Ben Franks ducking down to Lygon St for a skinny cap and an acoustic show.

Ben Franks

This bloke has been heavy scrummaging artillery for the All Blacks over 21 tests, but in reality he should be playing for the Wallabies or at least in the forward pocket for Hawthorn. Franks said his first g’day to the world when he was born in Melbourne back in 1984, and I can only come to the conclusion that he saw Australia’s ocean-like depth in the front row stocks and decided the Shaky Isles was a better track to international rugby.

Steve Devine

Devine was a talented halfback who spilled plenty of sweat for the NZ cause as an Auckland stalwart and a 10-test All Black, even though he cut his teeth in the rough streets of Boggabri in NSW. To make matters worse, he’s now a talented television presenter on Sky TV in his adopted homeland, meaning that we here in Australia missed out on someone who could be on the box instead of Greg Martin.

Derren Witcombe

Not only is this bloke memorable for his 5 tests for the All Blacks or the cool way he spells his first name, he’s also a household name in his birthplace of humble Hobart in Tasmania. There’s not much you can nail on Witcombe for taking the small paddle from the Apple Isle to New Zealand to play some footy; I’m pretty sure there’s absolutely nobody playing rugby in Tassie, so what other choice did he have?

Sam Harding

Take a trip to the far reaches of Perth and the moment you step from the plane you’ll hear names like Ben Cousins, John Worsfold and Sam Harding. The tough-as-nails Subiaco flanker wasn’t able to break in to the ranks of the WA Aussie Rules scene, so he left behind the questionable nightlife of the western seaboard and embarked on a memorable rugby career in New Zealand, which yielded a solitary test cap against Fiji.

Steve Devine demolished the Boggabri rep scene.

Scott McLeod

This man is an NZ rugby mainstay with 17 tests for the All Blacks and 44 Super 12 games for the Chiefs, as well as having a few fingers in various coaching pies in the current day. However, the fact of the matter is he should be imparting knowledge to sprouting youngsters here in the Australian system, as he was born a dinky-di banana-bender back in 1973 in the sun-bashed capital of Brisbane. Again, an understandable departure considering he had to deal with Queenslanders as a child.

Honorary mentions

Des Connor (Born 1935 in Brisbane, 12 caps for NZ and 12 for Australia), James Tilyard (1889 in Waratah, Tasmania, 10 NZ caps), Billy Mitchell (1890 in Melbourne, 5 NZ caps), Alfred Eckhold (1885 in Adelaide, 3 NZ caps) and William Mackrell (1881 in Milton, NSW, 1 NZ cap).

The Australasian swap meet carries on to this day after 120+ years of wheeling and dealing and stealing.

Gentlemen. Shall we call a truce after the pilfering of Harris?

The Wallabies are back, baby!

When you’re famished after trying to survive on nothing but basic rations for a while, it’s tough to muffle your excitement when someone unexpectedly hands you a ham sandwich.

That’s why after reaching some long-awaited parity with the All Blacks on Saturday night, I’m declaring with a sound mind and a gutful of delirious bravado that the pesky storm supposedly hanging over Australian rugby has now transformed into a beautiful rainbow sporting all of the trimmings of a hopeful future.

Yep, you know where this heat-of-the-moment rant is headed. In the words of Frank Costanza (if he followed rah-rah), I’m saying the Wallabies are back, baby!

Holding the rugby sovereign to a try-less draw in a unimportant dead rubber Bledisloe match was the endorphin-shot the team required to pump up the faith in Robbie Deans’ system and finally get the country feeling good about our first XV again.

Mike Harris. Aussie battler.

Let’s get real. One swallow definitely makes a summer and you’re only as good as your last game, so lets hang the hat on the solitary 80 minutes from Suncorp and celebrate the good times that are ahead!

After Saturday’s 18-all stalemate, our injury-riddled outfit has proven they can avoid defeat with the best of them, so put a welding mask on because the future is bright.

The re-awakening started up front with the Aussie forwards predatory at the breakdown, proving within 80 minutes that they’ve finally turned the corner in the intensity stakes. Lead by the anti-pensionable Nathan Sharpe, the man who won’t be around for said good times, an A-grade performance of passion and desire was produced which gave the impression that matching the All Blacks in the ruck will now be par for the course.

Add the prospect of unearthed youngster Michael Hooper combining forces with the inspirational David Pocock upon his return from injury, and BOOM, you’ve got yourself a Richie McCaw antidote. Advantage!

And what about Mike Harris? It was a super-steely showing from the true blue Aussie-Aucklander with his competent punching of anxious penalty goals and assured play at the back when the pressure was immense. He’s got the look of a long term marksman, and to add further gloss, he even keeps the traditionalists happy as a pawn in Australia’s continuing procedure of pinching anything of value from the Kiwis and passing it off as our own.

I’m not going to stop the dangerous predictions there, so let’s add the always-welcomed burden of expectation on young buck Ben Tapuai also, who looks the business as a rampager in the centres, as well as Kurtley Beale’s move to 10 which appears a less catastrophic option than Quade Cooper, even allowing for his pang of dropsies on the weekend.

A draw has never been so flaming enlightening. It’s got the Spring Tour looking more like something that has the potential to be actually enjoyable and encouraging rather than 4 possible banana peels seen on a shocker of a time difference.

I know I will feel a lot better rising at 1am for cereal beers knowing there should be a fierce and proud performance like Saturday night’s dish.

OK, I acknowledge that you may all be wondering how one can be so cock-a-hoop after a sister-kisser result in a dead rubber of a series that Australia were defeated in. You may also think that I have run out of medication.

Sharpey retiring was just like old times.

Well, my response is as follows: it wasn’t just the rousing display from the XV that has me whistling. There were mini-factors which seasoned Saturday night’s game that confirmed for me that Australian rugby was feeling like a cosy security blanket again.

With a Queensland-based Wallaby reverting to the dark arts in a daft attempt to rough-up McCaw, Sharpe again retiring and Eddie Jones featuring in the tabloids with controversial comments on Sunday morning, all seemed right with Australian rugby again.

Pure Nostalgia.

C’mon Australia, no time for rational judgement and cool heads, it’s time to go off early and get back on the bandwagon.

We’re back!

 

 

Why is Richie McCaw’s chest a billboard now?

As a boofhead of Australian descent, I am always reluctant to comment on matters of importance relating to our kin from across the Tasman.

However, in this situation, I think it’s pretty safe to go on the record with this bombshell: New Zealand rugby fans appear to be somewhat henpecked about the new sponsorship deal for the coveted All Black jersey.

“Go the All Blocks.”

For so long one of the last remaining hidey-holes from commercial intrusion, the All Black jersey will now relinquish it’s membership in the unstained apparel brotherhood after the NZRU succumbed to the buck and whored out the prized cloth space to multinational elephantine AIG.

Across the ditch, the decision has been met with a fair deal of rotten fruit.

The All Black jersey is recognised in all corners of earth as a uniquely powerful brand for rugby arse-kicking. It has relentlessly rucked the back of world rugby’s subordinates for 107 long years, and for 95% of this time has done so with the trunk commercial free.

NZRU Chief Executive Steve Tew has defended the decision to flay the kit with the corporate brush, stating that playing rugby is a bloody expensive business with its costly mattress-sized goal post pads and steeply-priced ongoing rights to the feelgood anthem “The World in Union”, and that the controlling body needs all of the capital support it can get.

Now pardon my lack of smarts, but hasn’t partaking in regular big-ticket ruggers been a drain on the purse for eons? So why now is the NZRU holding out the hand for some spare change?

One would immediately assume that the joint is totally impoverished and in need of an immediate injection of capital at all levels, but taking a gander at the NZRU’s financial position provides further mystification with the organisation posting a $9.6 million profit last year. To some, that’s ‘time to layby a portion of the Cayman Islands’, but to Tew it means batonning down the hatches for some belt-tightening selling of the soul.

Another possibility is that their football department needs some new toys and a coat of paint, but with the world champion national men’s team on a 14 month winning streak and 8 points clear on top of the IRB rankings, the Sevens side running second on the current circuit and the women’s outfit also reigning world champs, it appears doings are in a fairly golden state of cherry ripeness at ground level with the Gilbert.

In their current climate of near-perfection, a blank cheque for the sports science white-coat brigade or a multi-million dollar state-of-the-art training facility could manifest itself as an increase to the regular winning margin over the Wallabies to 20 points from the usual 17. Is that a reasonable return for the strip’s integrity?

Couldn’t Tew just sell a few spare Bledisloes to settle his pecuniary paranoia and keep Richie McCaw’s torso free of this mercantile malfeasance?

To make things even more bitter, the selection of sponsor has the Kiwi teeth gnashing like they’re in an never ending Dunedin winter, with the choice of a faceless corporation who carries a historical rank spot of financial failure going down like Felix Baumgartner with the faithful.

Steinlager. The tasteful choice.

Surely if the space was going to be flogged off, the keys to the cherished real estate could’ve gone to an iconic Kiwi brand. As an Australian, we love to emblazon our national teams with booze companies to remind the world we are frequently soused, so why not the equivalent such as a Tui or Steinlager to make a heavenly marriage with the coveted apparel?

Nope, instead the NZRU has opted for a relatively-unknown global money-spinner whose name contains the word ‘America.’ Weird.

I cringe at the possibility of awkward cross-promotional press conference moments involving some clueless Yankee suits attempting to wax about “The game they play in Hereford” and the commitment to the ongoing success of the “All Blocks.”

The fans over the Tasman, some of the most devoted and maniacal on the planet, deserve better. As does the game in the country as a whole.

New Zealand rugby had a wonderful legacy that separated them from the rest of the chasing pack and had them as perennial front runners in rugby values.

Unfortunately, it seems everything has it’s price these days.

Rugby League likes Mondays. Let’s keep them Mad.

The great game of rugby league, saturated in rich heritage and underpinned with a revered history, will forever find itself jousting with the feisty and youthful beast of progression.

The sport has been constantly churned through the stamping press of time and subsequently embossed with evolutions like video technology, floodlit night games, convoys of on-field officials, retina-aching change strips and more recently, the unkempt bushy beard motif of the current generation of young dudes.

Straight from training to MM replete with badly stretched jockstrap.

It’s fair to say that some of the changes over the years have been embraced and celebrated, while others have been downright flushable.

There are those that have been beneficial to the welfare of the game, an increase to its entertainment levels and a boost to its popularity, such as the 40/20 rule, national expansion and the retirement of the corner post.

On the other hand, others have been either rightly consigned to the trough of shame or still in existence and widely panned on the regular, with beige-shaded clangers like the South Queensland Crushers, video ref system complications and the basketball-style guernsey number system from the Super League days.

Allowing for balance between change and roots, future and past and forwards and backs, when it comes out in the wash I’ve got to say that I’m a diehard man of tradition. Sure, I’m happy for anything to be scooped up that will improve this wonderful game of controlled biff, but only on the proviso that we cling to what got us to where we are in the first place.

Yep, when it comes to the pecking order, it’s old fashioned logos, crumbling suburban stands, 4 inch-high layers of strictly-wrapped electrical tape on every body joint and going ‘around the grounds’ on crackling AM radio for this proud traditionalist. Give me a piece of Dencorub-flavoured Stimorol and send me to the bin for five any day of the week.

So when I heard the rugby league lefties up in arms this week caterwauling for the abolishment of one of the game’s great archaic threads in the time-honoured and stomach-evacuating Mad Monday, I was naturally spewing royale.

Things getting wild at the 1923 Cumberland end-of-season drinks.

Whether that was from pure disgust or the combined hot dog eating competition/boat race we had at our local clubhouse at 9pm on Monday, I cannot be entirely certain. Either way, I’m mightily unimpressed by this latest attempt to amputate something that is rusted-on to the game.

Mad Monday is the greatest holiday not officially recognised by the government on the national calendar. There’s no more solid cinder block in the foundation of footy than the first weekday following the cessation of on-field duties.

It is an annual institution for the parched and fatigued soldiers of the football paddock. After billions of hours on the training track and in the ruck, all they ask for in return is a quiet snifter of port and a chortle amongst colleagues at 25 separate pubs over a 32-hour period to mark off another year of toil in studded boots.

Not only is it a reward, it is also an occasion where tales from the coalface are told, bonds are formed and celebrated and departing players are sent in to the sunset with record-sized bar tabs and one shaved eyebrow. Game plans are devised for next season and dissected for the one just completed, and the icy barrier between feuding prima donna playmakers is melted via the vehicle of horrific dress and juvenile pranks.

And some want to cruelly take this away from the humble players in light of the isolated incident involving the Bulldogs chaotic tipple this week?

Shame on you, PC squad.

What everyone must understand is that Mad Monday is more than just an inland tsunami of amber and shenanigans. It is the core of the roots of the heart of the spirit of the game, and it must remain lest our players fully transform to tame sober vegetables or worse still, go in the opposite direction and become tempestuous a-holes on account of a hastily enacted prohibition of once-yearly good times.

Innovative ballwork techniques at Bulldogs training this week.

How can we justify the quashing of one of the player’s last rights on the lycra-covered back of the foolish- and unproven- actions of one group, a group who had just been belted in a grand final and who had a nightmarish biting incident to flush from their memories?

The images and results of this week are few and far between, and must be treated as such.

And if this humble rant doesn’t spark a public tidal wave that washes away suggestions of this foolish and ill-thought ban, then the prospect of enforcing the thing should. Who is going to attempt to police hundreds of Disney-robed footballers on the sauce, and how would this ‘ban’ be administered?

Seeing Shane Mattiske and John Grant trying to physically prevent Sam Kasiano from angling a stubbie in to his mouth would be a sight in itself.

Please don’t take another medal of tradition from rugby league. Let common sense prevail.

At least for the welfare of costume shops everywhere.
 

 

V8 Super-similarities helped my league withdrawals

My oval-shaped pigskin heart almost flat-lined on the weekend thanks to a Sabbath sans rugby league, but with the aid of an unheralded sliver of light that poked through the vile post-season darkness, I was able to survive and tell my tale today.

The saviour smelt like oil and bourbon and aggressively attacked my ear holes, but it filled my need for something.

It was the V8 Supercars and its apex event at Bathurst with its throttle-pumping brassiness, brutishness and ballsiness that provided the CPR to take me one step closer to the cricketing summer. I am forever indebted to these swift metal contraptions and their maniac drivers for saving me from a dire afternoon of rom-coms and human interaction.

Yes, I acknowledge that as a footy follower- thrown mercilessly to the awaiting cold turkey at about 7.30pm on Grand Final day- that I could be speaking through a blended haze of separation anxiety and hunger hallucinations facilitated by fuel fumes, but it’s true. I’ve discovered after a 6.5 hour Sunday of vroom vroom that Aussie car racing brings many attributes to the sporting round table that our relied-upon winter staples shovel up to us each week.

Don’t believe me? Then check out this pile of parallels that build like a pyramid of empty rum cans…

Dick and Peter arm-wrestling for the day’s last haircut appointment.

Rivalry

We have some cracking feuds across Australian football that pumps healthy blood through the code’s veins, with rusted-on classics like Canterbury v Parramatta, Roosters v Rabbitohs and Ray Hadley v silence keeping us all in a rigid state of hate. In the fast car series of Australia, you can experience ancestral-splitting and tattoo-inspiring contention each and every round between jalopy powerhouses Ford and Holden. Its bitumen biffing on tap in the form of Blue v Red, good v evil and the insignia mismatch of Lion v Oval logo, all which inspire ill-thought paint jobs on cars and timeless slogans on t-shirts forever.

Global flavour

Our international cousins are rife in the code of league, and who would want it any other way? It gives the NRL an international vibe cherried with extras like shivering road trips to Auckland, pasty outlaw English forwards, biased commentary and most importantly, superbly awesome accents for mimicking. Going toe-to-toe with the Long White Cloudsters and the Europeans is also a feature of the V8s with names like Shane Van Gisbergen, Greg Murphy, Fabien Coulthard and the bloke from the SuperCheap ads (or it could be Lowes. Don’t quote me.) ensuring that there is always the possibility of us whingeing about our silverware going offshore.

Not good. But entertaining.

Delusional fans

Grown men with painted faces furiously screaming at slightly-built officials and declaring their undying love for athletes up to 25 years their junior is downright nuts, but that’s the perception-altering power the depths of the winter can inflict on league fans. Supercar fans have their equivalent lunacy; those who camp in filth and ice for months before the race starts and who remain constantly bothered about Mt Panorama’s generous restriction of one carton of beer per person per day.

It’s clear that one case per day simply is not enough.

Schadenfreude

Both sports have the ability to doctor gentle earthlings into bloodthirsty hard-boiled injury enthusiasts thanks to the plethora of memorable and mangling pitfalls, collisions, stinks and stuff-ups on offer. The thorough enjoyment that a simple man is given when he eyes 2 fleshy fridges hurtling full-pelt into each other with a very real possibility of bone becoming chalk is easily transferable to the track. The V8s produce similar meetings of muscle with road-kissing between 2 or more oblongs of heated iron, all containing a living creature within, a lay down misere most weekends.

State of the art coverage

Technology has become far advanced in Australian league broadcasts, so much so that you can nearly see the criss-cross pattern of tape on the groin muscle of Sika Manu as he runs out for kick-off, provided the picture isn’t blocked by a cross promotion for The Voice or the latest head-to-head prices on the TAB. The coverage of the V8 Supercars are much the same, with the diarrhoea-inducing RaceCam and TrackCam getting your nose right under the clutch, and the broadcast of frustrated communication between drivers and their pit lanes getting your grandma’s sensitive ears out of joint. There is even a classy FYI session where the specifics of car clangers are pointed out on an in-studio engine for the punters at home. If I knew anything about cars when I saw this excellent explanation of a flogged-out steaming piston, I reckon I would be mightily impressed.

Trouble in Tiger Town – Part 2 (Sacking Tim Sheens)

The Wests Tigers certainly had a poor year in 2012. However, as I have noted elsewhere, there were some contributing factors to their failure to finish in the top 8, including numerous long-term injuries and some dodgy refereeing decisions (eg the Round 24 game versus the Bulldogs). One further win at some point in the season, and perhaps here we highlight the ‘no-try’ that was given to the Bulldogs, and the Tigers would have been playing finals footy in 2012.

Instead they did not. However, I am intrigued that the injuries and, let’s be brutally frank, some of the too regular inept performances by many of the 2012 squad, somehow are overlooked, with the blame squarely being placed on coach Tim Sheens. Really? Sheens is a master tactician who certainly revolutionised the Tigers playing style (and the way rugby league has been played in recent years) and while perhaps some tweaks were needed to get the balance between the flair and the grind, it was not his weekly performances that were the worst part of Wests 2012 season. Of greater concern was the mentality, skills and on-field displays of many of the Tigers players, who could be brilliant and then at other times produce appalling displays not good enough for first graders.  If anything, the club review should have taken account into that the squad was decimated regularly with injury, while conversely highlighting that the Wests Tigers depth and abilities were inadequate when key players were absent for sustained periods. This again comes back to notions of recruitment and retention (see part one), but also problematises lynching the coach if he can’t consistently assemble a fit and healthy squad to take the field.

And what about Tim Sheens?  Well he certainly has a wealth of experience and accomplishments, inclusive of coaching over 600 games and winning three premierships. Some have taken potshots at his ‘lack’ of success which is suspect considering how formidable the Canberra Raiders ‘Green Machine’ was in the late 1980s and much of the 1990s. Clearly Sheens hit a snag and had a disastrous five-year stint with the North Queensland Cowboys after this success.

If we turn to his time at the Wests Tigers, the calls for his 10-year reign to end are ridiculous. Sheens inherited a team of also-rans, with the merging of two under performing foundation clubs. I can tell you first hand the pain of watching a Balmain Tigers squad that often were the whipping boys throughout the 1990s; the pain of the two grand final losses (1988/1989), a finals appearance in 1990, before a period of agony which was bereft of finals footy. It’s not like the Western Suburbs Magpies delivered much better; in fact, they secured the dreaded wooden spoon for 1998 and 1999.  So two historically significant but clearly struggling clubs (on field and financially). After two years of ‘teething issues’ as the Wests Tigers, Sheens took over at the helm, hardly his ‘golden ticket’ destined for glory it would seem.

But Sheens did work his magic, developing a brand of entertaining football that culminated in the 2005 Grand Final victory, not to mention two other finals forays in 2010 and 2011.  Admittedly, the aftermath of 2005 took its toll for a few years, and the playing squad never quite had the right mix (eg the loss of say Scott Prince was felt for years), as were the numerous shoulder complications for Benji Marshall. But the Wests Tigers, with a seemingly better balanced squad, made repeat finals 2010 and 2011. While some of the press and fans have been dismissive of Sheens for 2012, it should be mentioned that for a freak Krisnan Inu late in the semi-final, the Tigers would have been in the 2011 Grand Final instead of the Warriors, while one win (and perhaps a correct obstruction call in Round 24) would have seen them play in the finals series again in 2012.

By way of concluding, Tim Sheens sacking was ridiculous in a season punctuated with poor playing performances (not coaching strategies), by an appalling run of long term injuries and in a season where one more win was the only difference between playing finals footy. Sheens transformed the Wests Tigers style of play during the later 2000s (extrapolate this to all styles of rugby league) and had a clear blueprint for how the Tigers could balance the flair with the grind (which unfortunately too many of his players failed to execute in 2012). Moreover, Sheens had made the Wests Tigers into a regular finals football team (all the more remarkable without a first choice quality half back), and gave the club its an unexpected first ever Premiership in 2005. This was historically significant for, as separate entities, Balmain last won in 1969, and Western Suburbs in 1952!

In the modern era, where Wayne Bennett, Craig Bellamy and an emerging force in Des Hasler, dominate league and the premierships, Sheens needs to be recognised as one of the best coaches going around, and one of the only ‘other’ coaches to have tasted success.  He has also been very good at developing new talent and elevating others’ games to the next level (think of the likes of Robbie Farah, Benji Marshall, Keith Galloway and Chris Lawrence, as well as younger and more recent players like Aaron Woods and Marika Koroibete).

Maybe things were going a bit stale at the Wests Tigers in 2012.  Nevertheless, the management should have honoured the remaining two years of his contract, actually paid ‘contracted’ players like Beau Ryan, and let Sheens guide the Tigers to more finals football or part ways on more amicable terms at the end of his contract.  Sheens should be remembered as a ‘supercoach’ who revolutionised, revitalised and ultimately made triumphant, an otherwise stagnant football club.

Trouble in Tiger Town – Part 1 (Recruitment and Retention)

It has been hard making sense of the recent developments at the Wests Tigers.

The loss of two key club men, advising others to look around, retaining or recruiting aging players and the sacking of coach Tim Sheens has been hard to understand.

Apparently all aspects of the club were undergoing a post season ‘review process’ yet, for all intents and purposes, it seemed that Tim Sheens was the prime target and man under pressure during the review. While that was still occurring, it transpired that player movements were also afoot. This, I would suggest, has been ridiculous and some of these decisions baffling, reflecting the inaptitude of the club more than the coach.

We’ll return to the sacking of Tim Sheens in Part Two.

For Part One, however, the focus is on the poor recruitment and loss of players by the Tigers. Coach Sheens was part this process, apparently fed up with some underperforming players and knowing that the club needed a fresh direction recruitment-wise. It seems Sheens was party to some of the recent player developments. The most notable were two key club men leaving for the Cronulla Sharks despite having existing contracts.

The first, Chris Heighington, the only player to have played 200 games for the Wests Tigers, was told he would not be re-signed and was allowed to shop around for a new club. This is a tricky situation and has met with a mixed reception from the fans. Heighington, fed up at being overlooked for representative honours in Australia, has been an international footballer for Great Britain for two years and has been popular with the players and supporters for his high work rate and off field comradeship.  Heighington still had a year to run on his contract but it appears Sheens decided a new direction was needed (a sentiment that has been expressed by some fans suggesting he works hard but lacks in on-field impact). Certainly injuries also curtailed his 2012 performances, yet he remains a durable and enduring footballer who had remained loyal to the club.

Letting Beau Ryan go was a calamitous error. Ryan has been arguably the best Tigers back in 2012, is improving on the field and has huge marketability off the field with his television work on The Footy Show. For this to occur, the Wests Tigers Recruitment team need to fall on their swords. Sheens is blameless in the case of Ryan; he wanted Ryan (and Ryan wanted to be coached by him) while a new three-year deal was announced earlier in 2012. Nevertheless, players like to get paid and failing to actually formalise the deal or provide Ryan with cash was a ridiculous blunder. With this, Ryan took his emerging talent and marketable persona to the Cronulla Sharks, linking with Heighington and other notable Tigers’ cast-offs – Bryce Gibbs, Andrew Fifita and John Morris.  The aptly dubbed ‘Tiger Sharks’ are no doubt rubbing their hands with glee.

So who has been retained? Two aging wingers have been granted contract extensions. Former New Zealand representative winger Matt Utai probably did enough to secure another season, with some solid performances in 2012, albeit with some shockers also in the mix. Lote Tuqiri, a former Australian Rugby and League representative, was not worth retaining. He may be able to mentor fellow Fijian Marika Koroibete, but Koroibete should be replacing on him on field and Ryan was the logical other winger (now Utai) for the 2013 season. Tuqiri is not worth a two-year contract nor expensive salary to be frank. He was exceptional in 2010, breathing attacking life into the Tigers flank and seemed to offer the final factor needed for the Tigers attack. Unfortunately, much of 2011 was spent in the sick bay, and while Tuqiri suddenly seemed to dig in a bit more, it was clear that he was spurred on by needing to get a new contract. Admittedly the Tigers looked a better team (and got deep into the Finals) with Tuqiri in 2010 and 2011.  However, the lengthy 2012 injury culled his prospects while the unearthing of Koroibete should have extinguished his playing future with the Wests Tigers.

And the future? Another aging player, Braith Anasta will arrive in 2013. He is a solid player, composed leader and does offer some ball playing ability, so may be an asset to the team (despite being written off by many).  Eddie Pettybourne should also aid the Tigers forward pack. However, replacement wise, the two wingers retained are dubious, as was retaining Tim Moltzen for three years (he may need to become a half back to get into the starting side in 2013).

There are also murmurs of discontent within the playing group, partially leading to Sheens dismissal apparently, but the senior players are culpable for the majority of them playing sub standard in 2012. Some, such as captain Robbie Farah, are being targeted by other clubs for 2014, so retaining the core and key players will be vital for the Tigers. Again, though,  many of these players need to address their own short-comings rather than attribute blame to others.

Not only is a decent new coach needed, but a major player signing must be unveiled to stem the feeling that the Wests Tigers will be also-rans in 2013. The mooted signing of Brent Kite, a strong but fading front rower, isn’t quite the coup being sought, nor awe-inspiring for the fans. Rumours of Michael Jennings signing could do the trick; a big game player but one who equally frustrates and lacks in consistency. If this signing comes to fruition this would explain why the young centre Blake Ayshford is also being advised to shop around. Jennings would at least offer some attacking hope for the Tigers, but realistically they need a supercoach to get the best out of him and the disillusioned Wests Tigers squad in 2013; they had that in Tim Sheens but sacked him……

Warming the Pine

Sport for those with comfortable couches.