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Opinion

The Wallabies are the Wests Tigers - Neither fan base will be happy with that comparison or their team's prospects

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31st October, 2023
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Neither fan base will like hearing this but the Wallabies have become the Wests Tigers. And the Tigers are the NRL’s version of the Wallabies.

Both once-proud sporting institutions have gone backwards at a rapid rate of knots over the best/worst part of two decades to hurtle toward that purgatorial place no sporting team wants to occupy – irrelevancy.

The Tigers and Wallabies have each thrown fistfulls of dollars towards fixing their respective problems, had their chairman deny the ship was sinking despite all evidence to the contrary and brought back the coach from a more successful bygone era with dire consequences. 

And now Benji Marshall and whichever poor sod who gets the Wallabies’ coaching hot seat have the responsibility of trying to repair the mess left behind by Tim Sheens and Eddie Jones respectively.

While the Tigers try to mount a united front despite the ongoing conflict between their Magpies and Balmain sides of the joint venture, the Wallabies have also been severely hampered by various agendas of factions within Australian rugby working against each other in the sport’s desperate attempt for centralisation.

TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 01: The Tigers look on waiting for a conversion attempt during the round 18 NRL match between North Queensland Cowboys and Wests Tigers at Qld Country Bank Stadium on July 01, 2023 in Townsville, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

And the immediate future looks bleak for both. 

From a rugby league perspective, the sudden demise of the Wallabies at the World Cup has been celebrated by the diehards who are never going to want their bitter rivals to succeed.

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For the vast majority of league followers who don’t particularly care if rugby is in a solid state, the sad thing for the Wallabies is that they are now not even on their radar. 

When Jones was first in charge of the Wallabies two decades ago, the perception was that the lure of joining their golden generation was a real threat to rugby league.

Eddie Jones. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Fear and paranoia swept through NRL headquarters at regular intervals when the likes of Mat Rogers, Wendell Sailor and Lote Tuqiri jumped ship to the 15-player code to play alongside household names like John Eales, George Gregan and Stephen Larkham. 

But now even the loss of one of rugby league’s brightest young prospects, Roosters rising star Joseph Suaalii, is not even considered a body blow. 

Whether his ageing Roosters teammate Angus Crichton crosses codes after the recent reports of inflated offers and dramas at the negotiating table is barely even a blip on the NRL radar.

Rugby would naturally much prefer to be seen as a strong rival to league but alas for them, they have now plummeted in Australia to such a depth that they are being seen by league types with pity, a fate that only George Costanza craves. 

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This is supposed to be rugby’s time to claw back lost ground to league in Australia – there’s a lucrative British & Irish Lions tour plus a men’s and women’s World Cup and the associated financial windfalls giving Rugby Australia a golden chance to return to centrestage in the national sporting consciousness. 

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - FEBRUARY 09: West Tigers assistant coach Benji Marshall looks on ahead of the NRL trial match between New Zealand Warriors and Wests Tigers at Mt Smart Stadium on February 09, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Benji Marshall. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

If they don’t capitalise on this opportunity, the future looks bleak for rugby in the crowded Australian sporting market. The Lions won’t be back for another 12 years and it will probably be a lot longer before the World Cup returns. 

It’s not quite time for Kent Brockman-endorsed panic among rugby fans to crack each other’s heads open and feast on the goo inside but that can’t be ruled out down the track.

For the Tigers, they are facing a similarly long road to clawing back to respectability after the latest round of boardroom backstabbing in the wake of an independent review into the club’s entire operations on the back of a second straight wooden spoon.

After a 12-year absence from the finals, the worst active streak in the NRL by nearly double (only saved by the Bulldogs’ seven-year itch), the Balmain-Wests joint venture has managed to churn through coaches, players and plenty of money without presenting anything resembling a viable long-term plan. 

There’s only so many times the club’s supporters can lie back and think of the 2005 glory days when the team went all the way in one of the three times they’ve made the playoffs since the shotgun marriage at the turn of the century. 

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Marshall was supposed to serve a two-year apprenticeship as an assistant before taking over the reins and that didn’t even last a season before he was shuffled into the head role three rounds out before the team’s second wooden spoon campaign ended. 

And he enters his first full season in 2024 with largely the same roster around yet another new halves combination.

Veteran playmaker Aidan Sezer is returning to the NRL from a Super League stint to partner Dragons recruit Jayden Sullivan or ex-Manly young gun Latu Fainu while experienced five-eighth Adam Doueihi is unlikely to be sighted until the second half of the year following his latest major knee surgery. 

It will take Marshall time to work out which combination suits his side the best and it will take a while on top of that before those two playmakers strike up a partnership. 

There is no quick fix at the Tigers, just like at the Wallabies. 

The goal for the Wallabies needs to be getting back to a stage where they are legitimate contenders for the 2027 World Cup – a repeat of the France debacle where they didn’t even make the quarter-finals will be doubly disastrous. 

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Forturnes can change a lot quicker for clubs in the NRL but if the Wests Tigers can firstly break their playoff drought and then become title contenders by then, that would also be a remarkable achievement.  

Until such times, the Wallabies and Wests Tigers fan bases are unfortunate kindred spirits. 

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