Like James Tedesco, Aaron Woods didn’t want a big song and dance made about his final game in black and gold. Instead, the departing Wests Tigers captain put on a demonstration of just what the joint-venture club will miss.
The semi-finals aspirations of Ivan Cleary’s men were extinguished many weeks back but there was a small prize for them in accounting for New Zealand Warriors in the last match of the NRL regular season.
A 12-point victory allowed them to leapfrog Gold Coast Titans and end the year in 14th place.
Hardly an achievement to jump up and down about, of course, but after a tumultuous campaign it gave the 10,231 on hand at Leichhardt Oval something to walk away with.
Cleary’s band of youngsters, discards and a few seasoned pros have ended the year respectably and will be joined by a collection of newcomers next season including Josh Reynolds, Russell Packer, Ben Matulino, Robbie Rochow and Chris McQueen, not to mention Benji Marshall, who after full-time led family members of his younger brother Jeremy Marshall-King in performing a haka to mark the 21-year-old’s debut on Sunday night.
It doesn’t take a genius to realise they will miss Tedesco dearly but despite the influx of forwards headed towards Concord, the role played by Woods at his best will also take replacing. The front-rower left in style with a strong display, troubling the Warriors with his offloading and making a regular dent in the opposition defensive line with 217 run metres.
Woods’ signing with Canterbury and Tedesco’s exit to Sydney Roosters were not received well by supporters earlier in the season following the sacking of coach Jason Taylor but they were given a warm send-off.
“They’re fans, they love the club. They were pretty disappointed at the time when everything happened,” Woods said. “If you let the footy do the talking you can change the fans’ perspective. They were awesome tonight.
“Our fans have really dug deep and stuck solid obviously through what was a pretty tough year. They’ve got Ivan on board and they’ve made some really good signings for next year. The club is in a really good place. I’m leaving but I reckon I’ll go to a lot of Tigers games next year supporting my old teammates.”
For the Warriors, missing both Kieran Foran and Shaun Johnson, it was the end of another season of disappointment, one so deflating across the ditch that it prompted a columnist to declare on the weekend that the franchise should be relocated.
There is more optimism about the Tigers and emotions ran high on a special occasion for the family of one of the club’s favourite sons.
Marshall wasn’t expected back in the inner west until next season, or at least until Cleary’s squad assembles for pre-season training in November and he officially re-joins the club for a season after four years away. The line-up of supporters for pictures with him before and after kick-off was a reminder of the reverence in which he is held in these parts.
Most of them remember well Marshall’s emergence on the scene while still a schoolboy in 2003 and 14 years later it was the first-grade debut of his brother that brought the Tigers premiership winner here. “It was quite emotional, to be honest,” he told Fox Sports of watching his versatile younger sibling in action. “I actually ended up crying up there. As the bigger brother you watch them grow up. I’m just proud of him.”
Marshall-King is off contract at the Tigers and no certainty to be at the club next season but made the most of his opportunity with a solid display off the bench. “It was a pretty good feeling,” he said. “It’s every rugby league player’s dream to do what I did today.”
The Marshall clan only had to wait until the 24th minute to see him introduced at dummy-half.
By then the Tigers were already well and truly on top despite having posted the sole try via a chip off the boot of the returning Luke Brooks that was latched onto by Kevin Naiqama.
There were more to come, though. The Tigers’ other centre Esan Marsters capped off an impressive rookie season with one of his own, the beneficiary of a burst of speed by Tuimoala Lolohea. The five-eighth, in his first outing against his former club, then cashed in himself after an adventurous length-of-the-field team effort that was begun by weaving winger Malakai Watene-Zelezniak in their own in-goal.
Only a determined Solomane Kata, who burrowed over from dummy-half on the stroke of half-time, gave the Warriors a show.
Naiqama’s second after the break made the assignment for the visitors more difficult and while a Roger Tuivasa-Sheck try with nearly half an hour left kept them in touch their ninth successive loss was sealed when David Nofoaluma crossed in the closing stages.
The defeat was even more painful for former Tigers centre Blake Ayshford, who broke his wrist.