On Monday, the Wests Tigers sacked coach Jason Taylor. In doing so, they brought an end to his tumultuous two year stint at the club, and they’ll be hoping this signals the beginning of a more successful era for the joint venture. The decision does, however, raise numerous questions about the leadership of the club and their decision-making process. The timing of the decision – just three weeks into the NRL season – is baffling. Furthermore, why would a club back their coach in punting one of their most popular players, only to turn around and give him the boot as well?
The second verse is the same as the first
Let’s get one thing straight immediately. This decision can’t be passed off as performance-based. If the Tigers’ board were satisfied with Taylor’s performance in September, nothing that’s transpired in the opening rounds of the season should have affected that. Besides the obvious fact that judging anything on such a small sample size is a folly, the reality of the situation is that the team has performed at least as well – if not better – than in 2016.
Let’s take stock of where the Tigers are at. They’ve played three matches, winning one and losing two. Their single win was a comfortable stroll past an inferior opponent in South Sydney. They then followed that up with consecutive floggings at the hands of Penrith and Canberra. Admittedly back-to-back hidings give the impression of a team in turmoil. But styles make matchups, and the high-octane offenses of sides like the Panthers and Raiders were always going to be a handful for a weak defensive side like Wests. Indeed, in 2016 they got belted by these sides by 30 points, 54 points and 42 points (admittedly they did sneak a win against Penrith as well, but there’s nothing saying they won’t win a return outing against either of these sides this year; and even in that win, they conceded 26 points). And yet, after receiving these shellackings, the Tigers board had “complete confidence in Jason moving forward into 2017”. So, what’s changed? If the issue is indeed performance, it would appear that Taylor has been sacked, not because the team is doing any worse than last year, but because he had the sheer misfortune of drawing two of the competition’s heavyweights in the opening three weeks.
(As an aside, it’s worth noting that the afore-mentioned Raiders have also faced two of the NRL’s elite sides in the opening rounds, and also lost both those matches, including a 42-16 hiding from Cronulla. But the Raiders haven’t sacked Ricky Stuart, presumably because they understand that the season is just three games old, and because they actually believe in Stuart’s direction for the club, rather than merely saying they do.)
Are the inmates running the asylum?
Alternatively, the other theory behind Taylor’s demise is that the club’s “big four” (we’re using the term very loosely) of James Tedesco, Mitch Moses, Luke Brooks, and Aaron Woods had refused to re-sign with the club if Taylor remained in charge. At this point, it remains to be seen if that is indeed true. However, if it is, it begs the question – who cares? It’s simply staggering that a group of players who’ve never brought the team anything remotely resembling success (since all four have been together, the club has achieved the lofty heights of 13th, 15th and 9th) would think themselves so invaluable as to demand change in the club’s leadership. Even more shocking is that the club would bend over to accommodate them.
(As another aside, in 2011 the Panthers faced a similar player revolt after they failed to appoint caretaker coach Steve Georgallis to the top job. The result in that instance was General Manager of Football, Phil Gould, putting a broom through the club and clearing out these highly paid – but similarly unsuccessful – “stars”, a move that was unpopular with fans at the time, but ultimately led the Panthers to a Preliminary Final berth 3 years later, and qualifying for the finals 2 of the last 3 years. But then again, Gould had the full, unwavering support of the board, rather than them merely saying he did.)
Remember, this is the same club board who failed to back their coach when he initially wanted to drop Farah, before finally siding with him after the situation became so messy that the situation was untenable, and who spoke about extending his contract in the off-season. To backflip now only serves to make their management of the entire last two years look clumsy at best, and downright incompetent at worst.
Sacking Taylor three rounds in puts them in an awkward spot for appointing a new coach. If the incoming coach is under contract for 2017, then this becomes a lost year under a lame duck coach. Or worse, interim coach Andrew Webster could guide them to the finals, causing even more controversy and disharmony when he’s inevitably replaced. Had they made this decision in the off-season, they’d be several months into their rebuild by now. The only rational explanation for this series of events is that the Tigers’ management didn’t care for either Farah or Taylor, and simply kept Taylor around for long enough to wear the blame for Farah’s dismissal, but perhaps that’s being cynical.
Play the ball, not the man
So, curious timing aside, is this the right decision? It very well may be. It’s been the position of The Obstruction Rule throughout this saga to empathise with Jason Taylor, who came into a dysfunctional situation and did the best he could, under trying circumstances. Regardless, a coach is judged on performance, and when you guide a side to a 40% success rate it shouldn’t come as any surprise when you get let go. This is clearly not the right time to make this decision (if he was going to be sacked, it should have happened six months ago), but it may yet prove to be the right one. A lot hinges on who they bring in as head coach, and whether their management have learnt from their mistakes and are prepared to genuinely support their new coach from the start. Or if instead, they’ll merely say they will.