BY CURTIS WOODWARD
Wests Tigers are facing the very real possibility of being dead last on the National Rugby League table if they lose to the defending premiers Cronulla-Sutherland at Southern Cross Group Stadium on Saturday night.
The Newcastle Knights currently sit 16th but will receive two competition points this weekend due to the bye. Newcastle also has a better points differential of -141 to Wests Tigers’ -164.
While the joint-venture club was competitive in the first half last Sunday at Campbelltown Stadium against the Sydney Roosters, they were simply no match for the Tricolours in the second stanza. And while the Sharks will be without a number of their State of Origin stars, Wests Tigers will still have the task of taking down a team that still boasts Paul Gallen, Luke Lewis, Chad Towsend, Matt Prior and Gerard Beale.
Aaron Woods and James Tedesco will also be in camp with New South Wales and unavailable for the struggling club.
Coach Ivan Cleary will thank his lucky stars that Origin has come around and the media frenzy it brings to take some of the heat off his battling team but the club’s maiden wooden spoon has never loomed larger.
The club has gone within a whisker of claiming rugby league’s most unwanted prize twice in the last five years finishing 15th in 2013 and 2015 respectively.
This team’s real worry is how easy they drift out of games.
“I think our attitude was poor too (against the Roosters) and something that we need to address,” veteran and respected forward Elijah Taylor said earlier this week.
“There was a lot of good in the game overall, but there was also a lot of things concerning about us in defence which we need to fix for a good Sharks team.
“It’s going to be a tough, tough encounter against Cronulla.
“They’re missing some key players but we have to focus on ourselves. We have to be selfless in defence and work hard for our teammates, and work hard off the ball.
“As a group, we can take the easy option rather than being selfless at times.
"To get to where I am now, everything about that is just a blessing." — Matt Eisenhuth— Wests Tigers (@WestsTigers) June 14, 2017
You're going to love our NRL debutant's story. 👍 pic.twitter.com/ajAWrzHXSR
“The average fan or media won’t see those one percenters but your teammates do, but doing those things really help get the result and that’ll take us a long way this weekend.”
Take from that what you will.
In comparison, perennial battlers Newcastle are scratching and fighting for every inch. Only last weekend they were on the end of a horrendous NRL Bunker decision that handed Manly-Warringah a narrow victory in the wet at Lottoland.
One team is desperate.
The other is playing like wooden spooners.
Wests Tigers’ season from hell seems like it can only finish one way.
They have sacked Jason Taylor as coach, had centre Tim Simona banned for match fixing and ripping off charities and lost three of their stars to rival clubs. Now it seems the team has accepted their fate as the brutal NRL season drags on.
Woods and Tedesco are toiling but you have to wonder if they’re not already thinking about next season. To make matters worse, halfback Luke Brooks has been sidelined with injury and while he returns this weekend, nobody expects the little playmaker to perform miracles in his first game back.
The Wests Tigers lack depth and their stars aren’t doing enough.
But what can Coach Cleary do?
There’s not much he can do.
Cleary adopted this squad from his predecessor and is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Tedesco and Woods are going but it’s not like he can put them back to the Intrust Super Premiership. All he can do is prepare the team the best he can every week and wait for the cavalry to arrive in November where he can start again.
Youngsters Jacob Liddle, JJ Felise, Esan Marsters and Matt Eisenhuth have been named on the bench for Saturday night’s clash which will give them vital NRL experience but is there a single Wests Tigers fan out there that thinks they can win this weekend at Shark Park?
The club also sits 15th in Holden Cup and dead last in the NSW Cup.
Josh Reynolds, Ben Matulino, Chris McQueen and Russell Packer are all headed to Wests Tigers next year but that won’t help Cleary or Wests Tigers fans sleep at night.
Nobody wants a wooden spoon – especially when you’ve never had one before.
Woods and Tedesco owe the fans and their teammates something special. They must find a way to inspire those around them in the remaining rounds. They can’t win games themselves but they can make others better players. This is the parting gift the fans deserve.
Supporters have every right to feel dirty that these beloved local juniors are headed to other teams but they also can’t expect Woods and Tedesco to work miracles. They should however expect them to give their guts before they leave and help Wests Tigers from that dreaded 16th place.
Whether they want to is up to them.