Now that the Tigers are in such a sorry state and there’s no real way of telling where the chips will fall, it’s worth considering some of the less prestigious members of the team, since these may well become the future prestige players – as well as the new old guard – if Robbie Farah, James Tedesco, Mitchell Moses, Luke Brooks and Martin Taupau all end up elsewhere, which is by no means impossible, or even unlikely, if the next twelve months play out as poorly as the last six. If there’s any silver lining to this kind of mass upheaval, it’s that it often brings lesser-known players to light, and gives them a chance to shine in quite a sudden and startling way. One of the more promising young guns in the Wests squad at the moment is Tim Simona, even if he doesn’t always make it into the media spotlight. In a team that has so many big personalities – and haircuts – Simona is fairly self-effacing and reserved, focusing mainly on his footy and keeping things pretty quiet off the field. A the same time, there’s an easygoing, laidback charm to his style of play that makes him feel like a kindred spirit to Tedesco and Brooks as well, and while he may not quite match them in talent, he makes up for it in the vibrant outlook he imparts to the team as a whole.
In any case, what the Tigers perhaps need more than flamboyant charisma at the moment is a reliable stable of players, utilities as much as big-name halves or backs, and in many ways Simona feels like the unofficial captain of this second, stalwart tier of Tigers players. One of the things that really characterises Wests as a team is the way they handle the continuity between their second and first grade squads, one of the key reasons why Leichhardt Oval is such an important venue within the Tigers mythology, allowing the team to maintain a grassroots, local flavor, despite the pressure of escalating property values and the exponential gentrification of Balmain, Lilyfield and Rozelle. While we often hear about Fortress Brookdale or Fortress Melbourne, it’s Leichhardt Oval that really has the greatest fortress mentality, although it’s not rival teams or codes that needs to be defended against here so much as the real estate market that has edged out the fanbase that once clustered around the Cauldron.
Now that Leichhardt Oval has become so incongruous with – most of – the surrounding landscape, it’s actually amazing to think how seamless that connective urban tissue once was, in what has to have been one of the most fluid continuums between fanbase and venue, suburb and team, in the history of the NRL. In fact, I’d argue that there’s no other NRL stadium that’s as beautifully embedded in its location and community as Leichhardt Oval, which manages to somehow feel totally continuous with the surrounding honeycomb of streets and houses but to also command Iron Cove Bay and the surrounding district from its lofty prow. While Beau Ryan’s take on Leichhardt Oval – Lilyfield Rectangle – has become iconic for a host of reasons, his ability to pick apart the differences between the fantasy and reality of this storied venue was definitely cathartic in an era in which the Tigers feel more and more disenfranchised and disowned by the field that once provided them with their greatest asset, with some of the most dismal games of the 2015 season feeling as if they were being played across the blueprint of yet another “medium-density” condominium development, rather than a sacred space in the local community.
If there is another team that gives the Tiges a run for their money in terms of their junior and reserve grade culture, then it’s probably Souths, and yet the sheer size and scope of Souths Juniors as a flagship institution for the club as a whole also means that it feels a bit less continuous with the current Rabbitohs squad as well. While the graduation of players like Adam Reynolds and Nathan Peats up through Souths Juniors is a central part of the mythology of the club – as well as their own personal mythologies – there’s also a sense in which the movement from Souths Juniors to Souths – or to any other team – is more akin to the movement from one first-grade NRL team to another, so massive has Souths Juniors grown as an institution. Devoid of even a stable home club – Tigers Five Dock and Wests Ashfield are no substitutes – it’s crazy to think that the Tigers could ever have their own dedicated Juniors building, and it’s probably not that much of an exaggeration to say that Souths Juniors, as it now stands, is a better business investment than the entirety of Wests Tigers.
While Simona may be well placed to embody the grassroots spirit that Leichhardt Oval once commanded – and may still command again – part of what makes his local personality so dynamic is that he’s also had a pretty impressive test footy career for such a young player, even or especially as he remains relatively inexperienced at the club level, thanks to a succession of injuries that started almost as soon as he hit the field. Not only has he represented Samoa in both the Polynesian Cup and Four Nations, but he took on the more prestigious position of fullback in the process, quite an unusual move for a player who’s made his NRL reputation at the wing and centre, and one that ensured him the kind of unofficial captaincy of the team that that position usually entails. On top of that, Simona is eligible for both Australian and New Zealand representative spots, and a great deal of his career over he next couple of years will depend on whether he chooses to hitch his wagon to the Kiwis or the Kangaroos, as well as how that might affect his eligibility for Origin.
On the home field, however, Simona hasn’t been as lucky, suffering a series of injuries that have admittedly cleared up in time for his Samoan stints, but have also meant that he’s never seen out a full season with the Tigers, although he came close in 2015, putting twenty rounds under his belt. For that very reason, though, Simona is a bit of a special presence within the Tigers, since while he’s already well on his way to international stardom, he hasn’t quite excelled enough at the club level to render him a poaching or trading threat, even if the Raiders made a bit of a reflex bid for him after the Tedesco deal fell through. Positioned in that odd space between a fully-fledged club and international career – a Tigers up-and-comer who still hasn’t played a full season for the Tigers, and a Samoan representative who still hasn’t decided whether he wants to play for Australia or New Zealand as well – it feels right that Simona has tended to shine in clashes with the Warriors, which tend to be about the only place that you can have something resembling a genuinely international match within the confines of the NRL itself, at least if you leave Origin’s international aspirations out of the picture. In fact, the Tigers’ two best games of the 2015 season were arguably defined by the way in which Simona managed to take on some of the most illustrious of the Warriors elite, measuring himself against the men he might have played with had he remained in his native Auckland. For a team like the Tigers, it’s important to be able to lose with dignity as well as win with dignity, and in his two stints against the Warriors, Simona gave us a lesson in both.
On the one hand, Round 5 was a classic example of how to go down with your head held high, as Simona managed to rally the Tiges through a grinding loss by bringing home two tries, as well as a couple of amazing fends in which he managed to brush aside Konrad Hurrell and Shaun Johnson – at Mount Smart Stadium no less. Nobody who saw the Tiges defeated that night could have doubted that they were a force to be reckoned with, nor that they had enough grit and potential to get back to their former glory if that level of play remained part of their repertoire. On the other hand, Round 25 saw the Tigers delivering a 34-point victory over the Warriors back at Campbelltown Stadium, in what was arguably the single greatest smashdown of the post-Benji era, an achievement that was consolidated by Simona’s running game, which allowed him to rack up 191 metres, a try, two line breaks and two spectacular offloads, as well as taking out Sam Tomkins in the process. If ever the Warriors had to wonder whether Tomkins was a bad buy, that was the night, although for the most part Auckland put up the kind of brutal, clinical performance that just made the Tigers’ achievement all the more impressive.
At the same time, Simona put in a pretty impressive performance at this years’ Auckland Nines, especially in the first match against the Raiders, where he played for the entire second half, but also as part of the Tigers’ 26-0 victory over the Titans in the second round. Given how things turned out in 2015, it was apt that the Tigers and Warriors were both included in the Hunua Ranges Pool, with the Warriors’ 22-8 victory possibly mobilising Simon’s two powerhouse performances against New Zealand in the year ahead. In an upcoming post on the Nines, I’ve speculated a bit on why they’ve got such a fresh and exciting feel, and one of the reasons has to be the way in which they allow players to cut their teeth and get a bit of a taste for the upcoming season with the burden of too many expectations. From that perspective, the Nines can be a critical event for players like Simona who are looking to build their reputations with the NRL gathered around to witness it in an informal, laidback setting, and if this year is anything to go by, Simona’s role in the 2016 Nines may prove even more important to his role at Wests Tigers as well.
All of which begs the question: will Simona ultimately stay at Wests? In interviews, Simona has been quite refreshing in the frankness with which he has talked about the need to build a legacy for himself and his family. Talking about the competing demands of money and team spirit is always a delicate thing to pull off without sounding manipulative or insincere, but Simona has taken Marty Taupau’s example and found a way to set up a future both with and without Wests that doesn’t diminish his respectful relationship with the club. Nevertheless, it’s not likely that he’ll be going anywhere soon, while his decision may not ultimately come down to other clubs as all but instead turn on the decision he makes regarding international representation. In the best of all possible worlds, he’d opt for the Kangaroos, make a bid for Origin selection, and follow Farah and Woods in maintaining the Blues-Balmain connection that’s been so critical to the prestige of the Tigers over the last five years. Whatever he does though, it’s guaranteed that he’s a young gun who’s destined to impress.