Wests Tigers coach Jason Taylor caused a stir this week when he announced that club stalwart and fan favourite Robbie Farah would be dropped to reserve grade. Taylor faced the media and explained that he felt they have “too many cooks spoiling the broth”, and that “it’s just not working for us at the moment in regards to the cohesion of the team”. The pitchforks immediately came out – fans were up in arms, Twitter exploded. It’s a wonder that Leichhardt Oval wasn’t burnt to the ground. But lost amongst all the hubbub of the talking heads proclaiming that Farah deserved better and that Taylor had lost his mind was one tiny, but significant detail. Taylor might actually be right.
It’s a we game, not a me game (or a Robbie Farah game)
Robbie Farah is a legend in TigerTown. He’s played 14 seasons for the Tigers, is a two-time Dally M Hooker of the Year, and played in the club’s maiden Grand Final win in 2005. He figuratively OWNS Balmain (and for that matter Campbelltown, and probably most of Burwood). This success commands a certain amount of respect on the football field, not only from his opponents but also from his younger teammates. When the Tigers were bringing their young halves Luke Brooks and Mitchell Moses into first grade, this respect and leadership were enormously beneficial, relieving pressure on the youngsters by allowing Robbie to take control. However, even though those young halves are now into their fourth and third seasons respectively, the team dynamic hasn’t shifted. The Tigers are still Robbie’s team. And as long as the young halves are sharing the field with an all-time legend, it will be very difficult for them to take control and shape the team in their own image.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating
So we’ve covered why Robbie Farah’s presence may affect team cohesion. However, is it actually the case? On the surface, it would appear so. Compare the team’s 2016 results with and without Robbie Farah below:
With Robbie Farah: 3-6 (33%)
Without Robbie Farah: 4-4 (50%)
This obviously doesn’t take into account strength of schedule or other important factors, but it at least illustrates that Taylor’s position isn’t completely insane.
VOA statistics however DO take into account strength of schedule (among other factors – learn more about them here), and if we compare the Tigers production of line breaks (arguably the chief offensive responsibility of spine players) with and without Robbie Farah, the results look far more condemning:
With Robbie Farah: LBVOA (-8.66%)
Without Robbie Farah: LBVOA (40.99%)
To put that in perspective, the LBVOA without Robbie Farah is not only better than it is with him, it’s also better than any other team in the league.
In summary, when Robbie Farah isn’t playing the Tigers are not only winning more games, but their attack is clicking better, which is precisely the point that Jason Taylor is trying to make.
The Curious Case of Lachlan Coote
None of this is to say however, that this makes Robbie Farah a bad football player. He’s certainly not. It’s also not ludicrous to think that he could be both the best fit for the New South Wales Blues AND a bad fit for the Wests Tigers. The two are not mutually exclusive. Take for example the curious case of Lachlan Coote. Coote faced a similar situation at Penrith in 2013 (his last at the foot of the mountains). Let’s compare the Panthers’ performances with and without Coote that year:
With Lachlan Coote: 4-7 (36%)
Without Lachlan Coote: 7-6 (54%)
Does this mean Coote was suddenly washed up as footballer? Not at all. Rather, he was usurped by future Origin star Matt Moylan, and struggled to find a cohesive place in the Panthers lineup. However, Coote would then head to North Queensland, and after missing the 2014 season through injury, would play a pivotal role in helping the Cowboys turn the corner from contenders into Premiers. By providing an extra legitimate ball-playing threat from fullback, he, along with Michael Morgan, took pressure off Johnathan Thurston and the Cowboys’ offense improved as a result. That Cowboys team would lose only eight games all year, and two of those were the two that Coote himself didn’t actually play. The point of the story is that it is conceivably possible for a player to be a square peg in a round hole for one team, whilst excelling in the metaphorical square hole of another.
It’s not show friends, it’s show business
Jason Taylor is employed to coach the Wests Tigers. Not to please the fans. And not to please Robbie Farah. His job is simply to prepare the Tigers as best he can to compete in the NRL, week in, week out. If he believes that dropping Robbie Farah gives the Tigers the best chance to win, that’s entirely his decision to make and Tigers fans will be pleased to know that he’ll be judged accordingly. He will be judged however, not on how many games Robbie Farah plays, but on how many the Tigers actually win. And those two numbers, sadly, are not going to be the same.