Michael Maguire’s hardline coaching “hasn’t worked” and that is only the start of Wests Tigers worrying issues.
Michael Maguire’s hardline coaching “hasn’t worked”.
Luke Brooks’ failings as a halfback are driving teammates “insane”.
Once-mighty centre Joey Leilua is fighting for his career after being axed two games into the season.
And Wests Tigers, whose last NRL finals appearance was a decade ago, sit winless and joint last on the ladder.
It’s still only March, yet there’s already a feeling of crisis around a club that has underachieved ever since winning its fairytale 2005 premiership.
Leilua, a diabolical signing for the Tigers on a reported $700,000 per season, seems a microcosm of Maguire’s plight. The coach would have backed himself to get the best from the dual Dally M Centre of the Year turned underachiever. But neither Leilua nor the Tigers have yet been restored to former glory by South Sydney’s 2014 premiership-winning mentor.
How to make Wests Tigers sparkle again? The answer is elusive.
“I really don’t know. Michael Maguire I think in the past has gone harder, obviously trained them harder and that hasn’t worked,” rugby league Immortal Andrew Johns said on Wide World of Sports’ Freddy and the Eighth.
“I really don’t know and I think he (Maguire) would be questioning, too.”
The problems start at the pointy end of the club’s salary cap, even with the deadweight contracts of Josh Reynolds and Russell Packer now shed. Leilua’s defensive efforts have been unacceptable. Moses Mbye continues to play well below his $800,000 salary and doesn’t have a natural home in the line-up.
And Brooks’ shortcomings would be wearing thin on his lesser-light teammates, NSW coach Brad Fittler believes. Simple yet brutal errors were glaring in his side’s 40-6 loss to the Roosters on Sunday; chief among them kicks over the dead-ball line to concede seven-tackle defensive sets.
“Luke Brooks didn’t help. The couple of times they got down there [to the Roosters’ end], he kicked the ball dead,” Fittler said on Freddy and the Eighth.
Johns interjected: “Three times.”
Fittler continued: “I saw some examples on the weekend where middle players … the demand on middle players these days to be fit, to be tough, to be skillful [is huge] … and then to watch your halfback kick the ball dead three times, you’ve got a good right to turn around and give him a clip across the ear.
“It’s just too hard a work in there to have someone just not get their job right. Until that can turn around, that attention to detail in those parts of their game … you just can’t kick it dead. Kick it short, just don’t kick it dead.
“To do three of them in an important game like that where they just had to work so hard … it’s about everyone getting their little job right and then seeing the desperation as a group.
“They (the forwards) do work hard. Can you imagine being a front-rower on the weekend? You’d just go insane.”
Johns added: “When the ball goes dead, the ball is kicked dead three times, the effect of that is the last 20 minutes of the game where they couldn’t pick their feet up. Both in defence and attack, they had nothing … on the back of not building pressure.”
Johns, to whom Brooks was likened as a young player, said that the Wests Tigers No.7 had no excuse for making simple blunders with so much NRL experience under his belt. He baulked at a suggestion from Brooks’ former teammate Benji Marshall that the 26-year-old should move to five-eighth.
“He’s played 150 games in first grade,” Johns said.
“And I imagine over his career, he’s been a halfback his whole career. If you play 150 games in first grade, you should be able to do it on your own.
“They’ve swapped five-eighths, they’ve had Moses Mbye there, they had [Adam] Doueihi there. It’s all about continuity.”
Doueihi missed Round One through suspension but played against the Roosters and actually did the bulk of the team’s kicking. Fittler suggested he could take even more of the kicking duties from Brooks.
“It’s a different story if he doesn’t kick the ball dead three times and Joey Leilua shows a bit more urgency. The score’s not 40; it could be 20 but it’s not 40, and that way you go into this week’s game with a bit more confidence,” Fittler said.
“You’ve just got to keep picking players that are going to be desperate and never say die and get their attention to detail right.”
Johns asked Fittler to define the Tigers’ identity, saying: “I don’t know what they are.” They are no longer the NRL’s great entertainers, having scored 18 points through two games, and Maguire has not yet been able to make them into a gritty team willing to grind out victories with stoic defence.
“They don’t have much style at the moment, they don’t have that much of an identity at the moment,” Fittler said.
“Until you get a few of those things right, a few of those basics that allow you to actually compete in the game from a fatigue point of view, very hard to build any sort of identity because you’re tired, constantly tired. They just need to get better, across the park.”
Johns added: “You look at the Melbourne Storm from five years ago, their core players in those key positions. You look at the Roosters. And then you look at the Tigers; how many of the players from five years ago are still playing there?”
Brooks is the only long-term key position player left, thanks to the disastrous 2017 period that saw James Tedesco and Mitchell Moses sign with the Roosters and Eels respectively, plus the retirement of premiership hooker Robbie Farah. The halfback is currently on a four-year contract worth $2.4 million, expiring at the end of 2023.
Brooks was the 2018 Dally M Halfback of the Year but has done little since to justify that surprise award win. He has never been a serious contender for representative honours, despite now being in the supposed prime of his career. Wests Tigers have never made the finals with him at the helm.
He was dropped from first grade by a frustrated Maguire mid-way through last season. Marshall outplayed him for much of the season, yet was shown the door despite his club icon status; and has played well for South Sydney so far this year.
Brooks should be a steadying factor in a team desperate for certainty in key positions, yet is another headache for his coach.
The coach re-signed with Wests Tigers on a two-year extension at the end of last season, despite a disappointing 11th-placed finish. It seemed a clear message from the board: the coach isn’t the problem.
But if Maguire’s players won’t lift under his guidance, proven in the past to get results, the future looks mighty uncertain for the club. Where do they go? As Johns said, who knows.
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