Ivan Cleary’s announcement that he intends to give James Tedesco and Aaron Woods a twenty-four hour window to decide on their future at Wests Tigers may well come to be his defining moment as coach. It’s a clear message that no single player is more important than the club, and that no single player is worth what the fans have been going through for the last couple of weeks. More importantly, it’s a way of taking control of the narrative, since it’s pretty clear that Tedesco and Woods are going to leave for the Roosters and Bulldogs anyway.
I sensed this conviction in Cleary from the way in which he handled Mitchell Moses’ request for a mid-season transfer. While I don’t quite know the intricacies of how that kind of permission is granted, it seems as if Cleary refused to give Moses an answer either way until after the Tigers had played the Eels on the weekend. Chances are, he already had his answer before that time, but making Moses wait was a clear way of reiterating the authority of coaching staff at a club where distrust of coaching staff has been particularly debilitating over the last twelve months.
At the same time, Cleary seems to have learned from Monday’s match as well. Whatever you think of Moses, it was dispiriting to see him play well against the Eels and it was dispiriting to see him play badly against the Eels – and he managed both in a single game. When he played well it reminded Tigers fans what they might be losing. When he played badly, it felt like a bittersweet way for him to go out on what might have been his final game for the club.
With the Tigers set to play the Dogs this Sunday it’s clear that Cleary doesn’t want to have a repeat experience and I think he’s right. The last thing the Tigers want to do is to rock up to face Canterbury-Bankstown all the while wondering whether their star prop and captain might be playing in Bulldogs colours next time they take on the team. For what it’s worth, I think that Bulldogs players also deserve a bit of clarity, especially James Graham, who may have to renounce his own captaincy and star prop status if Woods joins the Kennel.
I’m not blaming Tedesco or Woods. As a long time Wests Tigers fan, these are two of my favourite players and it will be heartbreaking to see them go. I genuinely believe that both of them would have chosen to stay at the club if the conditions were right – after all, Teddy did turn down a much better deal from the Raiders – and that they feel most at home when playing at Leichhardt Oval and Campbelltown Sports Ground. The same goes for Moses, who’s been playing alongside Brooks in the halves ever since they were at Holy Cross.
But enough is enough. As bad as Teddy and Woodsy’s situations are, they have to take control of them to some extent as well. Similarly, as much as fans sympathise with them, fans also have the right to expect a certain stability in terms of their team lineup, especially when they’ve invested in a yearly membership. For me, Cleary’s deadline is partly about letting the fans know that it’s OK to be impatient, that it’s OK to want closure and that it’s OK to want accountability even from our most likeable and talented players.
I’ve never been particularly partisan when it comes to the whole Robbie Farah-Jason Taylor feud. At a gut level, I sensed that Farah was as much a problem – if not more of a problem – than Farah, but things got so hyperbolic around both figures in the Tigers community that I took a bit of a step back after a while (I know people who were blocked from Twitter accounts simply for being pro-Taylor or pro-Farah). Nevertheless, I can say confidently that Cleary seems to be acting upon the frustrations of supporters and players in a way that we didn’t see during the Taylor era, which is a good sign for the club.
In other words, Cleary hasn’t just taken the coaching of the team but the management of the team upon his shoulders. We’ve heard for a long time that players have issues with the executive body at the Wests Tigers, and that the club as a whole is besieged by a lack of communication between the three tiers of players, coaches and management. By making this kind of definitive gesture, however, it feels as if Cleary is taking a certain managerial prerogative upon himself and showing management how it should be done. It’s a gesture that bodes well for the culture of the club.
And let’s not forget about Luke Brooks. Whatever you thought about his inclusion in the Big Four, it must be pretty demoralising to be left behind by all three of your closest team mates within a couple of weeks, let alone in a year in which your club has been plastered all over the media in such an unflattering way. While I don’t exactly think that Woods and Tedesco owe it to Brooks to make their position clear, I do also think he would have been another important consideration in Cleary’s decision.
For what it’s worth, I also think it’s pretty likely that Woods will announce that he’s signed with the Dogs and Teddy will announce that he’s going with the Roosters. Still, even if that takes place, their announcements will have taken place on Cleary’s terms, and on the club’s terms, and I think that will produce a real sense of closure and confidence going into the weekend. After all, there’s nothing worse than a shock transfer, and while Woodsy and Teddy’s departures have become an open secret, I still think Cleary should be applauded for taking even the most residual sting of surprise out of it. For now, however, it’s going to be a long wait for tomorrow afternoon.