For the teams who will be watching the NRL finals, the only way is up. In the first in a series on how they can get back to the playoffs, we’re starting at the bottom with the wooden spooners-elect, the Wests Tigers.
You can’t rebuild until you hit rock bottom. Unfortunately for long-suffering Wests Tigers fans, this year’s wooden spoon may not be the turning point.
And you can’t rebuild unless you have a plan. Well, at least now the club seems to have a pathway to getting back into the finals but executing it will be a painful process which will take at least a couple more years.
For a team that has the longest playoff drought in the NRL, stretching back to incoming coach Tim Sheens’ previous stint in 2011, there is little to be enthusiastic about.
The Tigers of 2022 have been hurtling towards the bottom pretty much since the start of the season.
After finishing ninth, 11th and 13th under Michael Maguire, the club brought an end to his tenure mid-season after the 44-18 drubbing at the hands of South Sydney in Round 12.
They were 15th at the time with a 3-9 record and interim coach Brett Kimmorley has been unable to prevent them from dropping to last, racking up just one win in 11 games at the helm.
To be fair to Kimmorley, he’s had to operate in an environment where players have been released early like Luciano Leilua to the Cowboys or loaned out to other clubs (David Nofoaluma to Melbourne and Oliver Gildart to the Roosters) while blooding rookie prospects to get some game time into them to see if they are worth investing in next year.
Sheens returning to the head coach’s role for a two-year stint after a decade-long absence from the role in the NRL is fraught with danger.
The four-time premiership-winning mentor (three at Canberra and the 2005 success at the Wests Tigers) will enter 2023 with a strike rate of 50.8% from 340 wins in 669 matches.
He’s highly unlikely to finish above 50% when he hangs up the clipboard for good at the end of 2024 when he hands over the reins to Benji Marshall as part of the succession plan.
Despite the addition of NSW hooker Api Koroisau from Penrith and Kiwi forward Isaiah Papali’i from Parramatta, the roster for 2023 will not be drastically different to this season’s squad.
The loss of Leilua in the pack will be compounded by the further departures of fellow second-rowers Luke Garner to the Panthers and Kelma Tuilagi to Manly while the Tigers are yet to sign any backs of note.
Veterans like prop James Tamou and centre James Roberts are unlikely to be going around again at Concord so the focus for Sheens will be on youth.
It adds up to another season where the only trophy that is likely to be in the Tigers’ claws will be of the wooden variety.
And they still have the three halves won’t go into two situation with Luke Brooks, Jackson Hastings and Adam Doueihi each preferring a spot in the halves.
Hastings is likely to again be tried at lock if all three are indeed still on the books for Round 1 but with the trio coming off contract at the same time at the end of next year, there is a strong possibility that at least one of them will be “free to explore their options elsewhere” in the off-season.
The challenge for Sheens is clearly long term and he won’t be fussed if his record cops a few dints.
His mission is to make this team competitive so that by the time Marshall takes over after serving a two-year apprenticeship as his assistant, the team is building towards sustainable success from within rather than the three-year cycles of recruiting mediocrity that has been a hallmark of the club since Sheens was punted in 2012.
Sheens was quick to shoot down speculation suggesting they would pay massive overs for Storm star Cameron Munster, which was wise because the Tigers need to shed their reputation as the club that free agents use to drive up their asking price before signing elsewhere.
The Tigers have plenty of money coming off the books at the end of next year and will be cashed up to enter the player market after next season.
But with 17 mostly young club juniors under contract for 2024, it’s clear Sheens wants to use that nucleus of talent to build around rather than pay above market value for recruits who, let’s face it, will want extra to join a team that has three finals appearances since the joint venture was formed at the turn of the century.
Apisai Koroisau (Panthers), Isaiah Papali’i (Eels), Triston Reilly (rugby union, Waratahs), David Nofoaluma (Storm – return from loan), Oliver Gildart (Roosters – return from loan).
Luke Garner (Panthers), Kelma Tuilagi (Sea Eagles), Thomas Mikaele (Warrington).
2023 free agents
William Kei, Jock Madden, Henry O’Kane, James Roberts, Tommy Talau, James Tamou.