Welcome aboard, Richo and Barry – here’s the big questions facing the new regime at the Wests Tigers

It was the day that Wests Tigers fans had been waiting for.

The club, which had been bumbling around from crisis to crisis over the last decade at the bottom of the NRL, finally parted ways with the Justin Pascoe, the CEO and Lee Hagipantelis, the chairman, both departing on an extraordinary day of bloodletting.

Former Souths supremo Shane Richardson and ex-NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell will take over as CEO and chair respectively, on an interim basis, representing what fans will hope is a clean break from the failures of the past.

Tuesday’s news was the culmination of a lengthy review into the failings of the Tigers, and while many if not most supporters were happy to see the back of Pascoe and Hagipantelis, the departures of the two most senior administrators does not solve anything.

More than perhaps any other team, the Tigers exist as an existential crisis, with multiple stakeholders, no clear identity and a propensity to leak that would make Sydney Water blush.

If Wednesday morning is to be a new dawn for Wests, one that kickstarts them into the powerhouse that they once threatened to be, then Richo and O’Farrell have to show leadership on some of the biggest issues that are facing the Tigers.

That starts with the team that runs onto the field – who have finished last two years running – but go far deeper, with issues around identity, stadiums, club culture and coaching.

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

What happens to the coaching structure?

The succession plan that was set in place to allow club legend Benji Marshall to become the NRL head coach was a near-perfect exemplar of where the Tigers had been going wrong under Pascoe and Hagipantelis.

On sacking Michael Maguire in mid-2022, they gave the reins to NRLW coach Brett Kimmorley, essentially writing off the rest of the year before the halfway point, then brought back 2005 Premiership winning coach Tim Sheens despite his last job ending in the sack in the English second tier.

Sheens was supposed to pave the way for Benji, but 2023 went so badly that he was barely in charge by the end, with Marshall pretty much coaching the team already.

Now, Benji enters his first season as the official head coach with zero experience in the role, a poor rosters and plenty of pressure to live up to his legend.

On top of that, the recruitment department has been remodelled but the Head of Football job remains vacant – that was meant to be Sheens, too – leaving the Tigers going into negotiations without a lead person responsible.

Scott Fulton was brought over from Manly, but his position clashed with Warren McDonnell, who eventually left, as has Sheens. Confused? So is everyone else.

The new firm have to get someone in position to take the lead on building a roster for the future – starting, notably, with the huge play made at Jarome Luai to join the club on a megabucks deal to play halfback. Is that still on?

Former cricketer Matthew Betsey is doing the job on an interim basis, but only started three weeks ago and now has had every job above him disappear.

Mark O’Neill at the Eels and former Wallabies coach Michael Cheika had been touted as options, but with a new team in charge, it seems unlikely that anything will happen soon.

Wests Tigers CEO Justin Pascoe and chair Lee Hagipantelis. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Who are the club actually for?

Shane Richardson is a big ideas guy, and has made a career out of turning those theories into reality. He brought Souths back from the dead, won a Premiership at Penrith and pioneered a new club in the UK with Gateshead Thunder.

The Tigers are in dire need of outside the box thinkers and present a unique challenge to administrators.

It’s tired, gone-over ground but the identity of the club itself still seems like two parties bolted together rather than one coherent idea, and the old regime did little to advance the Wests Tigers as their own thing.

Richo was part of the drive that essentially made Souths the biggest club in the Macarthur region, which should theoretically be the heartland of the Tigers given that they are the only side that actually plays there (at least, when they bother to), so if he takes over full-time, he should have ideas on what can work in that area.

(Photo by Getty Images)

Notably, the first voices to speak on the Tigers debacle were Benny Elias and Garry Jack, very much two Balmain figures, and all of the pre-merger legends that get trotted out – Steve Roach, Wayne Pearce, Paul Sironen – are from that side too.

The future is almost certainly Wests, not Tigers, but everyone involved in creating the identity of the club has their heads stuck at Leichhardt Oval in 1989 rather than the junior nursery of 2023.

This isn’t a call to get Steve Georgallis and Cherry Mescia more media work, rather a hope that whoever is in charge at the Tigers understands what the club could be if it kept Balmain as a heritage product and gave one of Australia’s fastest growing areas a team to get behind.

Last year, the Tigers announced that they were going to ditch games at Parramatta and Homebush, which was a solid start, with games split between Leichhardt and Campbelltown.

It sounded great, but then they expressed an interest in a new 20,000 stadium in Liverpool, for reasons only known to themselves, while continuing to largely ignore the perfectly good stadium they have in South West Sydney already.

The Dragons ploughed through the weirdness of their merger by going all-in with the Illawarra, where all the players came from and where they could have sole ownership of the junior base.

They’re still playing games in Kogarah, but they own the South Coast of NSW as a result.

Anyone who looks at the big picture over the next decade or more – which is the sort of thing CEOs should be doing – can see that, for the Tigers, that means Campbelltown.

Richardson, as canny an operator as you’ll find, knows that all too well, because he expanded the Bunnies’ brand massively into that area, and you’d hope O’Farrell, once Minister for Western Sydney, would know a bit about demographics, too.

How do they improve their reputation?

Even harder than making the team win and deciding who the club is actually for is changing what the Tigers are as a brand.

Currently, they’re in the mud reputationally after years of failure on the field, indecision in the boardroom and constant drama played out in the media.

That predates Pascoe and Hagipantelis, but went into overdrive in their time as the club lurched from crisis to crisis.

Sometimes it was their off-field  – the ANZAC jersey, the Fulton farrago – and sometimes it was on-field, like the record defeat to the Cowboys or the 273 days between victories that stretched across two seasons.

Sometimes it wasn’t even their fault, like the Cowboys reffing fiasco in 2022, but still added to the idea that the best way to get clicks in rugby league news was to kick the Tigers.

Every club has a reputation, of course, and bruises that the media like to punch.

There’s the Sharks’ stadium, the Roosters’ salary cap, Parra’s Premiership drought and everyone hating on Manly. That’s all fine and part of the tribal narratives that keep the game interesting.

For the Tigers, that reputation is for political wrangling at boardroom level. It’s something that a competent – and, perhaps, quiet – administration can deal with.

A few good results on the field would help, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. If winning starts in the front office, then Tuesday could be the start of something special.

For Tigers’ fans, the hope is that it is a new beginning and not another false dawn.

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