At this point in the 2016 season, every game is a make-or-break moment for the Wests Tigers, currently sitting at tenth on the ladder but more anxious than ever to make it into finals football in the wake of James Tedesco’s stunning debut for the Blues in Origin III. Nevertheless, last Sunday’s game against the Dragons felt especially momentous, not only because Benji Marshall was celebrating his 250thgame but because it followed in the wake of Jason Taylor’s further demotion of Robbie Farah to the NSW Cup in favour of Dene Halatau at dummy half. With Marshall on the opposing team and Farah downgraded, it was hard not to feel that the displaced Tigers promise of 2005 was front and centre, and the team seemed to feel it, putting in a particularly desperate and intense game that almost saw a fight break out with the Red V at the 50th minute. To add fuel to the fire, Jack de Belin was also celebrating his 100th game, while the Dragons arguably have even more than the Tigers to prove at the back end of the 2016 season. Desperate to go out with dignity, St. George-Illawarra tried to make up for the absence of Josh Dugan but couldn’t quite summon the energy, leaking massive holes in their defence and providing space for some of the deftest attacking moves from the Wests Tigers all season.
Key to that Tigers passion was Mitchell Moses, who not only put in his best performance of the season but one of the best performances of his career to date – an Origin-worthy display of fury and vision that reminded us how much of an asset he could be for the club if he managed to find a bit more consistency, especially in defence. Admittedly, his defence is still fairly half-hearted, and his conversion record could be better, but he’s utterly brilliant at playmaking within the opposition’s 20, especially when he straighten up the line, as he did for David Nofualuma and Kevin Naiqama to put down the first try of the night. While he may not always be consistent with the two-pointers, Moses has improved in leaps and bounds when it comes to the placement of his kicks from five-eighth, and his boot delivered the goods at the twentieth-minute with a kick that saw the Steeden slide right to the dead line before bouncing to a halt for a goal-line drop-out. Several minutes later, at the end of the Tigers’ subsequent set, Luke Brooks made good on Moses’ foundation by running straight through the Dragons’ defensive line in what looked more like an optical illusion than an attacking move, even in slow motion. Because Brooks’ kicking game can be a bit spotty, pundits tend to forget that he boasts the fastest speed of any halfback in the competition, and Sunday afternoon’s try was a case in point, as he slid through an apparently insurmountable wall of Dragons enforcers without a trace.
At the same time, Brooks didn’t act alone – Tedeso played a critical role – and it was only a matter of time before Teddy himself took centre stage, as Moses split the Dragons’ defence at the 29th minute to set the game’s favourite fullback up in open space. Running the length of the field to plant the Steeden over the line a mere four minute after his five-eighth, Teddy’s mad dash seemed to capture all the promise and potential that the Tigers can’t quite seem to harness: there’s so much talent in this team and yet nobody quite seems to know what to do with it. Moreover, this is talent that knows how to communicate on the field, with Tedesco, Moses, Brooks, Naiqama, Nofualuma and Simona, in particular, seeming to having an uncanny awareness of each other’s position at the most frenetic and chaotic moments. Even when they can’t see each other, they can feel each other, as evinced in Moses’ brilliant flick pass to Brooks at the 53rd minute, although Mitchell’s real moment of glory came a couple of minutes later with a 40/20 kick – his first of the season, and on the fourth tackle no less – that not only handed the Tigers back possession but found Moses himself casually flicking the ball back to Josh Aloiai a couple of moments later a metre out from the Dragons line to set up the young second-rower with his first NRL try. It’s moments like these – the dexterity, the judiciousness, the calmness – that really clarify how much of a player Moses can be if he brings more consistency and discipline into his game, and for Wests Tigers fan it was a joy to see him do his magic alongside Teddy and Brooks.
To cap it all off, Moses put a late Dragons resurgence to bed with a field goal at the 76th minute on the fifth tackle. Field goals are always an elegant late touch, but they’ve had a special significance for the Tigers this season, whose most confronting loss came from a Cooper Cronk one-pointer during Golden Point on a freezing, rainy afternoon at Leichhardt Oval. I was at that match and can attest that it was one of the most dispiriting and dejected I’ve ever attended – all the black and gold supporters around me just slunk away after Cronk got it through the posts – not least because Moses and Brooks proved so inadequate to the Storm halves. It was cathartic, then, to see Moses himself put in something of a Cronk-like move, and the Dragons seemed to feel as much, battling through the last couple of minutes with a weird combination of desperation and defeat. Given that the match was at ANZ, it often felt as if both teams were fighting for their home ground, and by the end the Tigers had well and truly claimed the territory, with St. George-Illawarra coming off as strangely homeless and displaced in the moments before the siren, especially in the absence of Dugan’s presence and leadership. In the last couple of days there’s been a lot of controversy and speculation about Tim Lafai’s alleged drunken aggression. If I hadn’t seen the game at ANZ, the allegations would have surprised me as well, since Lafai has always struck me as a particularly gentle and good-natured player, but the brutality of the defeat to the Tigers last Sunday would be enough to gravitate any of the St. George-Illawarra players into a particularly foul mood and state of mind.
That’s not to say, either, that this was a crushing or historical defeat. At 25-12, the Tigers put in a significant win, but the Dragons had their moments, especially as possession changed at lightning speed several times during last five minutes, culminating with a bit of brilliant play from Benji Marshall just as Brooks was getting into open space. Yet the fact that both teams were so desperate made the St. George loss feel all the more crushing, just as the Tigers win seemed to buoy the team above a lot of the speculations surrounding the club over the last seven days. Over the last year, I’ve oscillated quite a bit on the Robbie Farah-Jason Taylor front – Farah’s a club legend, Taylor’s the appointed coach – but by this stage I’m starting to get a bit over it. It was nice, then, to be able to forget that fracas at the heart of the Wests Tigers brand and instead see the boys doing what they do best, in what often felt like a bit of a Best Of compilation pieced together from their 2016 season as much as an individual game. As much as the players might have insisted that they were doing it for Farah, the irony was that Farah didn’t seem to be all that missed, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see him sign with another team before the next six months are out. With Michael Ennis also announing his shock retirement, it feels like the end of an era for the late great generation of New South Wales hookers, and while Farah has always been integral to my experience of the Tigers – and utterly integral to the post-2000 Wests Tigers – even I have to concede that it may be time for him to go. Even if you’ve been mistreated, it’s not a good look to be slamming your coach publicly, and his comments surrounding the NSW Cup game do beg the question whether Robbie is becoming more of a hindrance than an asset to the life and spirit of the club as a whole.
For all those reasons, then, there was something a bit refreshing about Saturday’s game. Whether or not Jason Taylor was proved right – as Ben Ikin and Paul Kent agreed on NRL 360, we probably won’t know that for another year – it’s clear that the Tigers can at least function and shine without their former skipper. While we’ve known that all season, it felt particularly emphatic and clear after Sunday’s match, even or especially because the entire tabloid media seemed to be waiting for them to choke in Robbie’s absence. Of course, there were still some low points in the game – it was hard to see Tim Grant taken off moments after arriving on the field, and pretty painful to watch the tackle that did it to him, which for my money was one of the most casually brutal this season. At the same time, however, the Tigers proved that they could hold their own without one of their key front-rowers – and at the end of the day that resilience was what was so rousing on Sunday’s match, as we saw a club primed and desperate to fight for their place in finals footy, as well as the pride and reputation of their fans, no matter how difficult things have been at a management and coaching level.