The Wests Tigers Might Finally Be Earning Their Stripes

The Wests Tigers finally did it.

They ended the losing streak and picked up a well-earned 21-20 win over the Parramatta Eels in Round 6. Against a flying Eels side playing in front of a bumper home crowd, the Tigers played with a level of patience and resolve we hadn’t seen this season. Their defence withstood early pressure and the middle performed well in yardage to drag them up the field. On the rare occasions the Tigers had to attack inside the Eels 20-metre line, they managed to find points.

We’ve not seen many teams lower on the ladder grind out wins against those towards the top over the last two years. It has always felt like a matter of time before the superior side would ride a wave of points and decide the game in the space of 20 minutes. However, the Tigers gave the rest of the competition a lesson in how to hang in games and how to give themselves a chance of finding the match-winning play late in the piece.

It’s a lesson they need to repeat throughout the rest of the season. Despite the win and the encouraging signs for the future, the Tigers are still favourites to finish up with the wooden spoon in 2022.

Punters- At TopSport, the Tigers are $2.35 wooden spoon favourites yet were as short as $1.70 prior to Monday's win.

The Tigers have an opportunity in the coming weeks to bring that 33% down, though. While heavy outsiders against the Rabbitohs in Round 7, the Dragons in Round 8, Cowboys in Round 10 and Bulldogs in Round 11 can be circled as games that can start to lift them up the ladder.

A major difference for the Tigers in Round 6 compared with the prior five rounds is the influence of Jackson Hastings. It’s only one game and a lot depends on an inconsistent pack in front of him to do it every week, but he looked right at home in the #7 jersey. He touched the ball 90 times throughout the match, playing on the ball and passing his teammates around the field. Like all of the top halfbacks in the NRL, he played a tackle or two in front of the play and reacted to the shape of the defence.

Luke Brooks did the same.

The NRL world laughed at the idea of a different number on Brooks’ back triggering a change in form throughout the week. While the number had nothing to do with how he played, the mentality and approach that comes with being a five-eighth when paired with an on-ball halfback certainly did.

Nobody has questioned Brooks’ skills. Not the ones that are clear, anyway. He’s a strong runner of the ball, engages the line well and can throw a good pass when the opportunity is there. In Hastings, he has a partner that makes up for where he struggles: organisation, set control, game-management.

The Tigers’ first try on Monday is a prime example of where the best of Hastings met the best of Brooks.

Hastings moves the big bodies around the field and towards the left tramline which became a regular feature of their try-scoring actions. When Brooks sees the Eels struggling to get across to the open side, he swings into action.

Punters- At TopSport, if you think Wests can get on a roll and play finals, there's an $8 price available.  

You can see him assessing the short side on the left edge where he is typically stationed before quickly moving to the open side. That’s a spot where we’ve seen Brooks take the ball one-off the ruck, try his luck down the short side before bailing on the play and starting again from the middle far too often. As a five-eighth, he doesn’t need to be the player taking the ball on 4th tackle. Instead, Hastings provides him with the flexibility and the opportunity to play - dare I say it - eyes up footy which translated into points here.

Later we see a prime example of Hastings’ set control. He’s getting his hands on the ball and looking to split the defence. He plays big James Tamou onto little Reed Mahoney which brings two extra defenders into the tackle and promotes a quick play-the-ball.

And there’s the split. The Eels have four defenders against two attacking Tigers on the short side. Hastings uses a lead runner to compress the defence before finding Brooks out the back. Always capable and now in a position to execute, Brooks throws a ripper cutout pass for David Nofoaluma to score in the corner.

At TopSport, Ken Maumalo is paying $34 to be the league's top try-scorer in 2022. 

Wests third try of the afternoon followed a similar pattern. Again it’s Hastings playing short on the left edge before Nofoaluma finds himself in space on the right wing.

After running Kelma Tuilagi onto a single defender resulting in an offload and scrambled defensive line, Hastings sweeps as he responds to a scheming Starford To’a run and quick play-the-ball.

The Eels have ten defenders covering just over half of the field leaving three defenders down one side and space on their left edge.

As the Tigers sweep to the right side, the defence reacts accordingly by jamming in and trying to negate the numbers advantage. Hastings chips the ball into the space he knows will be there for Nofoaluma to score another one.

Big forwards charging up the field, Hastings on the ball and Brooks popping up when and where he can make an impact.

Easy, right?

The Tigers certainly have the blueprint but putting it into practice consistently is a different story. Hastings is unlikely to touch the ball 90 times per game for a start. Ben Hunt’s 79 touches in Round 5 is the next highest mark this season with the Dragons halfback’s 67.5 touches per game the most of any non-hooker (min. 5 games).

Brooks has been unleashed.

Maguire has support from the board.

The Tigers have beaten a top side with an excellent performance in attack.

We’ve been here plenty of times before, and every time, it isn't long before a side that hasn’t played finals football for a decade looks every bit like a team that will need another decade to get there.

Opposition teams will adjust to what is a new-look Tigers attack just as quickly as they adjusted themselves. Top teams will apply inside pressure onto Hastings if he becomes their only option with the ball. Jason Demetriou this week is likely to spend time looking at Hastings’ involvements and assigning Cameron Murray to get out quickly and reducing the time he has with the ball.

There is a long, long way to go.

Everybody knows better than to call a Tigers turning point in the moment. They’ve taken one step forward and two steps back more than anybody cares to count. For Maguire, the playing group and the Tigers faithful, here’s hoping we can later look back at this game and circle it as the point when things finally started to change for the club.

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Jason Oliver

As far as Jason is concerned, there is no better time of year than March through June. An overlap of the NBA and NRL seasons offer up daily opportunities to find an edge and fund the ever-increasing number of sports streaming services he subscribes to. If there's an underdog worth taking in either code, he'll be on it.

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