The majority of people, myself included, tipped the Wests Tigers to win the competition this year. But if they lose to Parramatta tomorrow night, they might not even make the top eight.
It is hard to tip premiers before the season starts but the Tigers were a logical choice. They had been unlucky not to play in the 2010 grand final. This was followed by an unexpected loss to the Warriors in last year's play-offs which would have left them hungry for redemption this season. They also added Adam Blair to their roster for this year. Blair was seen as the perfect signing as he was expected to bring a harder edge to their defence and more grit in attack.
The Tigers have always had issues with their defence. Two years ago, at the SCG, the Rabbitohs put 50 points on them, scoring some of the easiest tries ever seen in an NRL match. It was just ''dummy and go'' stuff. Whenever Souths threw a dummy, Sydney Heads opened up and through the Rabbits went. That game turned out to be a turning point in Wests' 2010 season, however, and a turning point for the their defensive performances since. From that point on, the Tigers adopted a much more aggressive defensive style. They worked hard on mastering their new style in the ensuing months and it catapulted them into the finals in 2010 and 2011.
In recent years, the Tigers have been one of the best attacking teams in the NRL and, without doubt, the most entertaining. At times, though, they have overplayed in attack and been too fancy. They have pushed passes, leading to unforced errors, with critics claiming they lacked respect for possession. At the back end of the 2010 season and for the majority of last year, however, the Tigers had their attacking game nicely balanced. The attacking brilliance was still there but they made better choices about when and where to spread the ball. Their passing was calm and composed instead of forced and frantic.
In 2012, with five games to go in the season, it is this balance in attack that the Tigers have been looking for all season but haven't found. It seems they have spent so much time addressing their overplaying issues that they are now guilty of underplaying. When they attempt to move the ball wide, it is done too far away from the defence. This allows the defensive line to hold its shape and simply slide across the field with Benji Marshall and co as they run or pass from one side of the field to the other. Playing with this type of depth ensures a team won't drop the ball but it also makes them easier to defend against. And, as we all know, the Tigers have never been easy to defend against.
With their season on the line, Wests need to break the shackles. They are stuck between two styles of play and this is holding them back. The oldest attacking principle in rugby league says you must go forward before going sideways. The Tigers must remember this. Once the Tigers forwards get Parramatta's defence on the back foot tomorrow, their backs need to engage the defence and go on the attack.
As for their defence this season, they are having similar problems sorting out their style. When they have used their old style of passively waiting for the attack to come to them, the results have been ugly. In round eight, Parramatta scored 30 points against them in the space of 14 minutes, which must be a record. The Roosters put 42 points on them at Leichhardt Oval in June in a fashion that was scarily similar to the way in which the Rabbitohs scored their tries in 2010. And last weekend Souths were at it again as they comfortably racked up 32 points. This time around the Rabbitohs' tries were different, though, as the Tigers seemed to be using both styles of defence throughout the match. At times a defender would race aggressively out of the line but there seemed to be no rhyme or reason as to why, and his teammates looked to be unaware what was happening.
The Tigers have had a bad run of injuries to key players this season, which has forced them to chop and change their line-up. This can have a major impact on how a team plays in attack and defence, so it must be taken into consideration. Regardless, they are sitting in 10th position and not in the top four, which is where they would have been aiming at this point in the season. They have five games to rediscover their aggressive defence and brilliant attack or 2012 will be another major disappointment.