It’s hard to say exactly why this is, but Wests Tigers feel like the most likeable team. Perhaps it’s because they often present more like a reserve grade team than an NRL team, one tier of attitude or ambition below the rest of the League (which doesn’t, of course, prevent them playing a brutal game when they muster their forces). Of course, that sense of being an NRL underclass is also because they feel like an underclass in Balmain as well, more displaced from their original community than virtually any other franchise, culminating with the recent anxieties about whether they will even be able to continue playing at Lilyfield Oval at all. Having grown up in the inner west, I’ve seen the Tigers catchment area transform over the last decade into a fully gentrified extension of the city, edging out the kinds of fanbase that would have sustained them before they merged with Wests during the Super League wars. If anything, Balmain now feels like a quintessentially AFL suburb – a Swans suburb – its its conspicuous upward mobility and reduction of sporting culture to a glamour experience, while the Tigers feel more aligned with an inner west that’s starting to pass away even in Concord, Russell Lea and Abbotsford, a suburban sprawl of red-brick apartment blocks and squat brown-brick houses once organised around industrial zones like Mortlake and Cabarita and second-generation immigrant commerical strips like Five Dock and Haberfield, but now shadowed by boutique high-density residential enclaves. In some ways, the merger with the Magpies was the last lifeline back to that original community, which is perhaps why players pooled from Campbelltown, like James Tedesco, also feel inextricable from an older version of Balmain as well. For another team, that might spell tragedy, but the Tigers have always responded with a profoundly comic resilience that gives most of their players a kind of wry irreverence that I find really winning. Most obviously, there’s Beau Ryan and Chris Heightington, the Laurel and Hardy of League – they never felt quite right after their move to the Sharks – but there’s something about the Tigers generally that tends to take the rapport between halfbacks – the most comic and charismatic rapport in the game, the closest we get to true League romance – to its most entertaining extreme, with Luke Brooks and James Tedesco poised to become my next favourite NRL pairing. Then again, the brilliance of the Tigers is that every player relates to each other as if they’re halfback pairs, which means that even the stalwart veterans like Pat Richards have a kind of charismatic gleam, a communion with the other players that makes this feel more of a team, in the traditional sense, than any other in the NRL. Ever since the departure of Benji Marshall, that’s also made for a singularly ego-free team, with even Robbie Farah’s emotional outpourings contained by what he gives back to his players, let alone the Blues, as well as the deftness with which he moves from leading a NRL underclass to leading a NRL superclass that could actually stand to learn a lot from the Tiges synergies. As you can probably guess, then, I’m a Tigers supporter at heart, even if my allegiance has moved to Canterbury-Bankstown in recent years, just as most NRL fans seem to have a soft sport for this most endearing of teams. NRL commentators love their “young guns” – emblems of community, continuity, collegiality – and while the search for the next Slater, Hayne or Thurston can sometimes get a bit overegged, I always feel on board with it when it comes to the Tiges, a League team fighting for a future in a post-League landscape, straddling the incommensurable distance between Campbelltown and Balmain with good humour, good sportsmanship and a great sense of team camaraderie.