Since grabbing their fairytale premiership in 2005, the once exciting and entertaining side has rarely provided their fans with anything else to cheer about.
2008 will be the third straight year the Tigers miss the NRL Top 8, a worrying trend – but also just as concerning is the rate that Wests are falling apart at the back end of seasons.
Take last year for example, the Tigers only needed to get over last-placed Newcastle in their last game to make the Top 8, the Tigers were ahead 24-12 with 7 minutes left. And they somehow somehow dropped their bundle and lost.
The Tigers sat lost on the ANZ Stadium turf, looking a little similar to the Cowboys players they belted in a grand final 2 years prior at the exact same venue.
This was the 2nd time that Wests had thrown away a finals position in the final month.
The media has seemingly gone easy on Tim Sheens and the Wests Tigers since 2005; does the NRL Premiership victory for Wests give them a ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card for the next 5 years? Regardless, the Tigers began putting in the big ones prior to the kick-off for 2008.
So keen were they to make amends in 2008, Sheens prevented mercurial playmaker Robbie Farah from joining Lebanon for represenatative matches.
Coach Tim Sheens’ contract was also due for renewal in 2008, the joint venture club if they didn’t make the Top 8 this year would be the first premiers in 17 years to miss finals football 3 seasons in a row after winning the Premiership.
With 2 NRL rounds to go, it looks set to happen. The once magical Tigers have again gone missing at a crucial stage. After flashes of brilliance and the chance to secure a lower order finals spot just 3 weeks ago – the Tigers seem to continually bring a knife to a gun fight in the closing rounds.
Facing plenty of heat over the last 2 weeks, with heavy losses to Parramatta and Manly, Sheens threatened sackings.
“This season was a watershed year,” Sheens says.
“A watershed year is a watershed year. If players can’t answer the challenge, then it’s time for people to grow up. If it doesn’t happen then early next year we’ll have to look at changes.
“We’ve already got a handful of changes in mind. There’s a couple of under-20s kids who will be in our fulltime squad and the Englishman (Gareth Ellis).
“The big issue will come in the first three or four months of next season when there are quality players on the market. Some of our guys will have to improve or they will be moved on.
“That doesn’t mean they will be tapped on the shoulder today. We’ve invested very heavily in junior development. A lot of these players have now had more than 50 NRL games and it’s time for some of them to grow up.”
Sheens has yet to say which players are in the gun sights, but some believe that prop Bronson Harrison is being offered on the open market. Fullback and Captain Brett Hodgson leaves for the UK in a couple of weeks – leaving just a few players in the squad from the original winning team of 2005.
Some were let go with time still remaining on their agreements. The Tigers believe they had to offload some squad members due to intense salary cap figures, but others say it’s through mismanagement and possible back-loaded contracts.
On a positive note, the Tigers players remaining have agreed so far to move a percentage of next year’s salary around to keep books clean in 2009.
The problem now, is that Wests don’t have a whole lot of leverage in the player market place, tight budgets and a losing side don’t make for an attractive home for potential new recruits.
“We are not a club that has money to be in the top end of the market,” Sheens says.
“We develop lots of juniors and we’ll always look to them first. I’m not talking about changing that policy. I’m talking about guys who have not fulfilled their potential.
“If they don’t take the next step, then we’ve got to look at the kids coming through. I’ve been watching for the players who have gone to another level this season – Chris Lawrence is one.
“But there’s guys who’ve been in the system for three or four years who have not gone as far as I thought they would.”
As Time Sheens puts his players in the firing line, the players too are questioning the head coach. Regardless of appearances, it’s hardly the talk of a happy home.
Sheens’ stats read – since taking the 1994 grand final with Canberra, he has since only reached the NRL Finals once – with the 2005 Tigers fairytale.
Apparently when it came time to reappoint Sheens, some elements in the joint venture club were keen for new blood at the top to revive the mindset and feel.
Some Magpie-aligned directors pushed for John Dorahy to get a run at coach, but eventually were outvoted – Sheens getting 2 more years on his deal.
“Everyone at the club has to look at their performances,” he says. “I am not isolating myself from that.”
Again the blow torch turns on the Wests Tigers tonight. They have a tough task ahead, with players, coach and fans disgruntled – plus little if any money to run the broom through the place properly.
But for the disheartened, don’t worry – there is always 2005 to look back on.