I remember seeing pictures on TV of a packed Balmain Leagues Club on Grand Final day. I remember the spirit the Tigers had. The Tigers had a special group of players at the time, players that their supporter base really connected with.
The Balmain Tigers went close, as close as you can get, but ultimately history will show that in their last two Grand Final appearances the Tigers came up short.
What followed for the Balmain Tigers was a very sad decline. At one point they changed their name to the Sydney Tigers and played games at Parramatta Stadium. When the Super League War was all over and the newly formed NRL started to look at cutting back on the number of teams in the competition, the Balmain Tigers were just about out on their feet.
I remember when Balmain and the Western Suburbs Magpies merged there were plenty of people that said the NRL was taking two struggling clubs to make one struggling club. In those early days the Balmain Tigers held the balance of power at the new joint venture, something that was helped right along by adopting the Tiger as the club mascot.
The Wests Tigers early years were messy. They wasted a lot of money on has-beens and rejects from other clubs. It wasn’t a good start to the life of the joint venture, but things would soon change…
An influx of young talent led by a veteran coach saw the Wests Tigers claim an unlikely premiership victory in 2005. By this stage the balance of power was starting to shift a little as the Western Suburbs side of the joint venture started to produce so much talent and started to be the dominant partner in the joint venture in terms of finances. The Balmain Tigers still held the crucial votes on the board of the joint venture however.
As time moved on the Balmain Tigers made decisions of their own. Ones that would eventually see them having to fight for survival in the courts and ask the NRL for millions of dollars in financial aid.
Today, the Balmain Tigers stand on the precipice of extinction. They have lost control of the joint venture. They have been given a deadline to pay back money they owe the National Rugby League. The clock is ticking on the Balmain Tigers, and quite honestly, I don’t think they will survive.
It is sad. Just as sad as the day that the Balmain Tigers and Western Suburbs Magpies were forced to merge. It has been a long time coming though.
In the early 1990’s the ARL administration of the time made the decision to expand the competition. They knew they couldn’t axe clubs without running into the type of shit storm we saw when the South Sydney Rabbitohs were axed.
The ARL made the decision that they were going to move forward with an expanded competition in the knowledge that some teams would simply die off.
In my opinion that is what we are seeing in play here with the Balmain Tigers. The NRL couldn’t have done any more to keep them alive. They gave them millions of dollars in funding over more than a decade. They handed them loans to keep them going. At some point the game simply had to draw a line in the sand. At some point the NRL had to stop funding a failing club.
The Balmain Tigers have been given time to try to save themselves, but it is unlikely they will survive. Their territory will be taken over by another club and Leichhardt Oval will cease being used as a venue by the Wests Tigers. For most people, what they see in NRL, the Wests Tigers themselves, that won’t change at all.
It is a harsh reality that many former clubs have faced over the years. The Balmain Tigers are not the first club to die and they likely won’t be the last. There are a number of Sydney clubs that are starting to prepare for a battle to survive in the big business era of the National Rugby League.
Over the next few days you can expect to hear people running the Balmain Tigers blaming the NRL for their demise. Don’t listen to it. The NRL has done everything they could. They are just the last sad moments in the lives of administrators that led a foundation club to extinction.
Thankfully the Tigers spirit will live on in some way in the Wests Tigers. Supporters of the club would not turn their back on the team.
The Western Suburbs Magpies side of the joint venture has shown great restraint over the years and paid more respect to the Balmain side of the joint venture than they ever needed to. They have already stated that the clubs name will not be changing, and that even if they take over funding the club completely, they will still be called the Wests Tigers no matter what.
People will have their Tigers to cheer for, and the future will be bigger and brighter than ever before. One club moving in one direction. A club that will no longer have it’s hands tied by political infighting at board lever or being anchored down by a financially unsustainable joint venture partner.
The Tigers will always be with us in the NRL. They might not be Balmain, but the black and gold jersey will be worn with pride by generations of football players to come.