Poor old Wests Tigers. They've been branded strugglers, failures, no-hopers, scandalous, ad nauseum. But regardless of what you might say about this oft-maligned merger, their saviour has come to town in what is shaping up to be a year that the joint venture finally turns the corner.
While saviours are generally considered handsome, rugged, strong, good looking, or at least one of the above, the Tigers have found a much less elegant model - a short, grumpy looking bloke from out Penrith way named Tim Sheens.
Sheens is the most experienced coach in the NRL today. He's seen plenty of highs, such as leading an immensely talented Raiders outfit to three premiership victories. And he's seen the lows, most notably his infamous mid-season departure from the Cowboys in 2001.
But he really has found a home with the Tigers, where he's taken his band of merry men, combined them with a dose of frightfully talented youths and created something of a Wests and Balmain renaissance.
And what a wonderful renaissance it's been. The classicists will harangue us week after week with tales of big forward packs, one ups in the ruck and playing the percentages. Only a reinvention of sorts can take the core traditions and toss them out the window in such a marvellous, enthralling way.
The Tigers have moved away from all of the conceptions you might have about lower-table clubs going nowhere in particular, to having all the hallmarks of a classic tale. Scott Prince captures the essence of Tom Sawyer as he leads his team out of its cave. Benji Marshall is the Peter Pan of the troupe, leaping and gallavanting about the field like he never wants to grow up. Brett Hodgson could easily change his surname to Hrothgar from the epic Beowulf, comparitively drawing from experiences of good (the Eels in 2001) and bad (the Magpies in 1999) to provide stability at the back. And the ever-loyal John Skandalis would do Frodo's companion Samwise the Brave proud, with his determination to help his team complete their quest even when the outlook was hopelessly bleak.
Charming ditties like these can be found throughout the Tigers lineup, and they all combine gloriously in a epic that would make Shakespeare's mouth water and writing feather flutter furiously.
It's an unfinished symphony though, and while many of us are anticipating a fairytale, others are acutely aware that not all stories have a happy ending.
Luckily for the Tigers, Sheens himself sits firmly in the cautious category. ?Form can go up and down in a week as we all know; you're only one win away from being back in form and you're one loss away from being out of it,? he's quick to remind us. He seems to have been born with the ability to keep his men sharp, and hungry. He kept the Raiders that way for several years, and if you think it's easy, just ask supporters of the Panthers or Roosters how much they could use such a skill right now.
While we've seen plenty of gatherings of journeymen and youngsters over the years, they've rarely worked this well. Usually the result is a struggle to avoid the wooden spoon born out of a lack of true competitive spirit. Other times they've missed having someone good enough to correctly put the jigsaw puzzle together. Or maybe they didn't quite have the talent.
The Tigers are different because they can tick all of the above boxes. The journeymen come in the form of players like Paul Whatuira, Todd Payten, Scott Prince and Brett Hodgson; the youngsters are the impressive Benji Marshall, Robbie Farah, Liam Fulton and Dene Halatau to name a few. And of course the master artist, Tim Sheens. It's shaping up to be one of his best works. His highly revered Canberra piece was akin to a paint-by-numbers - such an awesome team practically picked itself.
But he's started from an almost empty canvas this time. The picture is really coming together and a work this impressive - and original - could trigger the start of a new era in the game. And most importantly of all, the fans are loving it!
The famous man of the Renaissance period, Leonardo da Vinci, used to sign his works ?lo, Leonardo? meaning ?I, Leonardo?. Perhaps it wouldn't be too out of place to mark the Wests Tigers 2005 team poster accordingly: ?lo, Tim?.
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