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Smart Signings: Why the Tigers need to throw the keys to the team - and the cheque book - at Jarome Luai

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16th November, 2023
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With the Finals over and the November 1 contract deadline passed, we can officially declare the NRL’s silly season open.

Into the morass of gossip and conjecture, we will bring sanity, with the relaunch of Smart Signings, our dissection of where clubs are weak, what they need to improve and where they might find it. Expect stats, profiles and insights, with options that are available and realistic. Don’t expect rumours.

Predictions are fun. Great when you get them right, amusing when you get them wrong.

Making predictions about the Wests Tigers is pretty easy, because you just assume the worst thing that could possibly happen and start from there.

Now, with Tim Sheens departing and Benji Marshall officially in charge, all predictions begin with the Tigers finishing last again.

Benji’s job is easy, really, because he has a fairly limitless well of support based on his playing career and club legend status, and if he fails, it’ll likely get blamed on the basket case club, the constant boardroom politics, the lack of identity, the poor roster or whatever – and any improvement he can claim as his own.

Last year’s Smart Signings: Tigerland was based around their somewhat farcical pursuit of Mitchell Moses, and warned against spunking a million dollars’ worth of salary cap on a halfback who was going for his last big deal in the NRL, and instead suggested that other areas of the team might be worth upgrading first.

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Our tip was that they should find a new fullback, which they did through their own juniors, with Jahream Bula emerging, and we’ll take the win on saying that they’d eventually drop Daine Laurie, which they did (albeit later rehabilitating him as a half).

To continue this fun walk down memory lane, our suggestion was that they had strengthen their pack and thus should invest in the outside backs – Will Warbrick our tip, is another tick for talent spotting – and try to generate more points.

Not to blow our trumpet yet further, but the story of 2023 for the Wests Tigers remained one of getting into position but then failing to score, suggesting that the strike was not quite what it could have been.

Their most commonly used backline was as follows: Junior Tupou and David Nofoaluma on the wings, Starford To’a and Tommy Talau in the centres, Bula at fullback and Brandon Wakeham and Luke Brooks in the halves.

For one, that’s a really bad 1-7, and it’s not surprising that they didn’t score enough points.

Nofa has been on the outer for ages, Wakeham and To’a only get a game at all for teams that play in the bottom 8, if not the bottom four.

Tupou and Bula were great but both are raw, while Talau and Brooks have since left the club for Manly.

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Asu Kepaoa, Brent Naden, Charlie Staines, Triston Reilly and Josh Feledy all also got runs, which doubles down on the consistency problems that invariably come with guys who are either not the best or very young.

Statswise, Wests were 11th for metres made and 12th for metres conceded – remember, they were 17th on the ladder – but dead last for line breaks made while being fourth best at accumulating territory. The pack was not the problem.

If you prefer the eye test, Api Koroisau would make a superb move to befuddle the markers, only to find nobody up with him. Then they’d try a run around, pass towards the sideline and either drop the ball or go into touch.

The arrivals for 2024 – Benji himself aside – don’t fill anyone with confidence.

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)

Jayden Sullivan arrives to play in the halves, but he left the Dragons, who finished just one place about the Tigers, because he couldn’t get in their team consistently enough.

Aidan Sezer will be the other half on a one-year, low risk deal aimed at bridging the gap over to Latu Fainu, the big-bodied five eighth poached from Manly, or anyone else that they might be able to sign for 2025.

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Latu’s older brother, forward Samuela, is also on deck and will compete for a place alongside Stefano Utoikamanu, David Klemmer, Isaiah Papali’I, John Bateman and Fonua Pole in what is, as mention, actually a really good pack.

It’s clear that the key issue is creativity and the halves signings for 2024 are long-shots at best, so there;’s only one place to go for a signing recommendation.

They need a half, they’ve got cash, and they need a kick up the backside. The Wests Tigers need to throw the cheque book at Jarome Luai.

Moreover, they don’t just need to sign him. They need to sign him to play halfback.

There are a lot of myths about Luai, chiefly that he is a bit of a support act to Nathan Cleary, but they don’t stand up to much.

Luai has often played without his great mate in the 7 jumper and generally impressed when tasked with being the senior half, both for the Panthers and, in particular, for Samoa.

Smart Signings is a stats and tactics based method of recruitment, but you don’t really need reams of spreadsheets to tell you that a guy with three Premierships back-to-back-to-back, plus a World Cup Final appearance with a Tier 2 nation, plus a load of rep jerseys, is good at football. If you don’t think Luai is good, then there’s no hope for you.

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Given that palmares, there is scope for a team like the Wests Tigers to make him an offer that doesn’t depend on him winning now, but is more about paying him big bucks to be the main man at a side that needs a character like him.

They are absolutely crying out for a maverick, talismanic, high personality type of player such as Luai, especially if they want to put the other side of the farm on Latu Fainu being as good as they think he is.

Moreover, Luai as halfback, like he plays for Samoa, is the answer. Currently he is limited to around 40 touches per game – below average for a five eighth – and still puts up better numbers than most players in his position with fewer opportunities.

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

The Tigers already run their attack through Koroisau, and should continue to do so, which allows for Luai and, potentially Fainu, to play more as supplementary players behind the clear playcaller at dummy half.

This isn’t alien to him at all, given that he already played with Koroisau at Penrith and rep level, and has been behind Cleary and Isaah Yeo in the pecking order at the Panthers. You’re not asking him to run the team, you’re asking him to do what already made him good.

At 26 – 27 by the time he joined – they would be paying for a mature, experienced guy to play what likely would be his peak years under a coach that he respects massively and who would allow him maximum freedom, while earning an absolute packet. It’s worth the investment.

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For the Tigers, too, there’s not much else. They need a halfback of real renown, but the options are vanishingly thin.

The November 1 list includes Shaun Johnson, who already knocked them back, and Adam Reynolds, who is surely on his last legs as a player and will likely not go around again in 2025.

There’s Chad Townsend, who is diminishing year-on-year at the Cowboys, and Anthony Milford, who can’t get into the Dolphins team. Even in England, Saints CEO Mike Rush told his star half, Lewis Dodd, not to touch the Tigers with a bargepole.

The Panthers can offer Luai success and stability, the Tigers can offer him the keys to the club and a shedload of cash. For them, it’d be well worth the investment – and it’s up to the higher ups to convince the player that it works for him, too.

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