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Pressure Points: Benji is the unseen party in the Tigers' boardroom upheaval - but he might benefit the most from it

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13th December, 2023
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Benji Marshall probably doesn’t need an introduction to what life was going to be like as head coach of the Wests Tigers, but if he was under any illusions, they were shattered midway through Tuesday afternoon.

He’d been putting the team through their paces at the shiny new Concord Oval, watched on by a bevvy of sponsors on a lunchtime junket, with chair Lee Hagipantelis and CEO Justin Pascoe pressing the corporate flesh.

At that juncture, his major concerns were whether David Nofoaluma could run the length of himself, how much it would actually cost to convince Jarome Luai to join up and, if he got a second, what he might have for his dinner.

Then, all hell broke loose. Tigers gonna Tiger.

The coach has been something of a fall guy in the epic bloodletting that was triggered by the removal of Mssrs Hagipantelis and Pascoe, and the arrival of Shane Richardson and Barry O’Farrell to take their place.

Marshall was – if you believe Hagipantelis at least – close to Pascoe and described him as the best CEO he’d ever worked with.

Losing a key ally before a ball has been kicked in your first head coaching job is certainly a rough start.

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Having the club’s name once again slathered across every media outlet in Australia as a basket case isn’t exactly a brilliant sales tactic to the man you want to build your spine around, either.

Then again, he’s worked with Richardson before at South Sydney so should have a decent idea of what he can get out of the new guy, and Richo himself was quick to wax lyrical about his love for the Samoan superstar too, presumably in the hope that Luai reads it.

“I’ve made my feelings on Luai well known for a long while. In my opinion, he was the best young half coming through,” said the new CEO.

“He’s proven at the highest level he was the best young half coming through.

“Not only that, he’s a great team leader, that Penrith side revolves around Luai. He is a great person off the field despite what many media people try to make out.

“You couldn’t meet a better person than him and you couldn’t ask for a better person at your club.”

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

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It’s laying it on a bit thick – has he heard of the other bloke at Penrith? – but sometimes you do what you have to do to make the sale.

When Marshall gets to Friday and cracks a beer, he might reflect on this week passed as one that, while turbulent, could actually have enhanced his credentials going into year one in the top job.

Had he started badly, it would have been easy for fans to lump him in with the circus upstairs, knowing that he was Pascoe’s guy and part of their masterplan.

Now, if it goes wrong, he can point to the upheaval and ask what he’s meant to do in such circumstances.

If anything, the new regime at the Tigers off the field enables the new blood in the coaches’ box to have a free hit on it.

Everyone knows that the roster is bottom four standard, especially in the backs and halves, and that a rookie coach is being tasked with an epic turd polishing job to do any better than that.

Richardson also said that the coach would have final say in recruitment, and doubtless that will involve going hard at Luai and, if possible, Addin Fonua-Blake as well.

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If Luai were to turn them down, it would be a huge blow and leave the club without a marquee in the position that most requires strengthening, while also signalling to the market that even when they pay megabucks, it isn’t enough to convince talent to join.

Again, though – this would look like a board problem, not a Benji Marshall problem.

The obvious place to point the finger would be towards the chaos of this week and the lack of stability at the club, with the new guys only interims and the recruitment team half-built.

As has been discussed at length, coaches need one of two things to stay out of trouble: wins, or the feeling that wins are coming in the future.

The winning part might not the of paramount importance, at least at the beginning, because of the obvious issues in the team.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 18: Jayden Sullivan of the Dragons scores a try during the round three NRL match between Brisbane Broncos and St George Illawarra Dragons at Suncorp Stadium on March 18, 2023 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Jayden Sullivan scores. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Jayden Sullivan is just 21 and couldn’t consistently get into the team at the only side close to as bad as the Tigers.

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Aidan Sezer is 32 and comes off the back of four years in the Super League, where his teams finished eighth, fifth, ninth and eighth again in a 12 team competition.

It’s not a stellar duo, and will start as comfortably the worst halves pairing in the NRL.

Even with a legendary former half as coach, it would be a miracle if they ended the year as anything other than bottom four.

Again, however, coming last is something that the fans are used to.

Between Wests, the Tigers and the Wests Tigers, the club own 20% of all wooden spoons across the 116 seasons of rugby league in New South Wales.

Though fans obviously want their side to do well, it might not be the be-all and end-all if there is a sense that the club is building.

The feeling in 2022 was that they were ending a cycle under Michael Maguire and in 2023, that they were going nowhere under Tim Sheens.

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If anything, the biggest job that Benji has is convincing the most downtrodden supporters in rugby league that something better is coming.

If the side plays good footy, the sort that the Tigers tried to play at times last year, fans will back him in even if results don’t always follow.

If he invests in youth players, of which the Tigers have many, then fans will see that he is at least trying to move beyond the failures of the past.

BATHURST, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 29: Junior Tupou of the Wests Tigers is tackled by Brian To'o of the Panthers during the round nine NRL match between Penrith Panthers and Wests Tigers at Carrington Park on April 29, 2023 in Bathurst, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Junior Tupou is tackled by Brian To’o. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Whisper it quietly, too, but beyond the halves the roster isn’t dreadful.

The pack last year more than competed and were far from the worst going around – it was just that the backs never translated their work into points.

Those backs include Junior Tupou and Asu Kepaoa, neither of whom are terrible and both of whom are young, and Jahream Bula, a revelation at fullback.

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Throw in new arrivals Latu and Samuela Fainu, plus young stars Triston Reilly, Josh Feledy, Tarryn da Silva and Kit Laulili, all of whom have now debuted, and Lachlan Galvin, the Australian Schoolboys five eighth still to come.

If Benji really wanted to go down the youth route, he could do so and get away with it.

It would lose a lot of games, but win other and give a clear idea that something was brewing.

It would then be up to the new regime to back that up with signings that changed the narrative around the club.

Here’s some food for thought that might help Benji and Tigers fans to look to the future.

In 2016, Newcastle won a single game, but blooded two Saifiti brothers and Mitch Barnett while shedding some of their least valuable contracts.

In 2017, they won just five and finished last again, but got rid of more bad contracts while also announcing the marquee additions of Kalyn Ponga and Mitchell Pearce.

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In 2018, they won nine, in 2019 they won ten and in 2020, they played finals.

Notably, they did that while actively shedding some of their best junior talent – the likes of Joey Tapine, Jesse Ramien and Nick Meaney – but, crucially, building slowly back into a proper club.

If Richardson looks at what he has, from the 2022 Harold Matthews Premiers to the SG Ball team that has already provided two first graders to the 12 players under the age of 23 who are already in the Top 30, then he might take hope.

He’ll know that it will take time, and that the one thing that the club is crying out for is stability. The coach, however inexperienced in the NRL, has to be at the heart of that. Benji has a near-limitless well of goodwill from supporters and expectations on the field are rock bottom.

It’s essentially a free hit in 2024 – and if Benji treats it as such, then it could be the start of the move back up the ladder.

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