Benji, beware the poisoned chalice: The good, the bad and downright ugly of Wests Tigers’ ongoing coaching debacle

After back-to-back wooden spoons in the last two years, and a club management as chaotic as a late-night Monty Python script meeting, you have to admire the courage and optimism of new Wests Tigers coach Benji Marshall as he takes the reins of the club for (potentially) the next four years.

Marshall is joining a list of famous names to coach the club, and it will take all the mercurial skill and flair he displayed as a player for him to turn the tide at the Tigers and to outperform his largely failed predecessors.

The very first thing you notice when you look at the Tigers’ coaching performance table below is that not one of the seven coaches they’ve had in the 24 seasons since the shaky joint venture first took the field in 2000 has achieved a win ratio of more than 46%, and that includes Tim Sheens who won four premierships in his career, Ivan Cleary who went on to win three, and Michael Maguire who won a title with Souths in 2014.

Debacle might seem like a harsh term when describing the club’s coaching history, but it is the Wests Tigers after all, where coaching conjecture and intrigue has been an almost daily occurrence. Let’s have a brief walk through their coaching history.

Wayne Pearce was their inaugural coach back in 2000 but he only lasted a year, finishing with a win ratio of 42%. After having the Tigers firing early in the 2000 season they faded badly towards the end, lost eight of their last ten matches and finished tenth on the ladder.

The selection of Pearce as coach in the first place was ill-advised at worst, and stop-gap at best, but probably necessitated by the hurried way in which the joint-venture was put together. Pearce’s track record as coach with Balmain over the previous six seasons was woeful, with an overall win ratio of just 35%, but still marginally better than that of Tom Raudonikis, who coached the other joint-venture partner in Western Suburbs.

Given more time perhaps Wests would have had the opportunity to source a more suitable long-term coach who may have got the joint-venture off to a better and more stable start.

Of the seven coaches Wests have had to date, the great Terry Lamb, who followed Pearce and coached the Tigers in 2001 and 2002, has the unfortunate distinction of being the least successful, with a win ratio of just 32%. Under Lamb, Wests won just nine games in 2001 and seven games in 2002, to finish in 12th and 14th places respectively.

To be fair to Lamb, it was his first (and last) foray into first grade coaching, he inherited a somewhat dispirited team, and they were struggling for talent. Just to illustrate, does anyone remember the following Wests players who played under Lamb – Hassan Saleh, Trent Runciman, Mark O’Halloran, Lee Murphy, Makasini Richter and Ben Black? I thought not!

After three years in the coaching wilderness, Wests then pulled off their most important signing to date when they appointed Sheens as coach for the 2003 season and beyond. Sheens had won three premierships with Canberra, had coached NSW to the narrowest of losses in the 1991 origin series, and had 421 first grade games under his coaching belt by the time he joined the Tigers.

Tim Sheens. (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

He rebuilt the squad, despite a reduced salary cap, and gradually turned the tide at Wests, finishing 13th in 2003 and 9th in 2004, before taking the team all the way to grand-final victory and the Tigers first, and only, premiership in 2005 on the back of a brilliant young spine in Brett Hodgson, Benji Marshall, Scott Prince and Robbie Farah, who were ably supported by a solid three quarter line and a hard-working young pack of forwards.

Sheens stayed for another seven years, passing the 600 first grade game coaching mark, and becoming the Kangaroos’ highly successful coach along the way, but the Tigers couldn’t reproduce their 2005 form, making the finals just twice more under Sheens, when they were eliminated early in both 2010 and 2011.

Wests and Sheens then fell out of love, and although he was contracted until the end of the 2014 season, the clipboard was handed to Mick Potter in 2013, having served his coaching apprenticeship in the UK.

In what was a very unstable time for the club, and in a classic case of the tail wagging the tiger, poor results and player power put an end to Potter’s tenure as Wests coach by the end of 2014, after he achieved a success rate of just 35.4%.

He was then replaced by the marginally more successful, but even less popular, Jason Taylor, who only saw out two of his three contracted years before player power claimed another victim and Taylor exited after round 3 of the 2017 season.

So, after those five years of turmoil and intrigue, you’d think that things might just settle down, but of course, you would be wrong, it’s the Tigers after all. Andrew Webster stepped in as caretaker coach for a couple of games and then it was former Penrith coach Ivan Cleary driving his now infamous bus who stepped into the coaching breach in round 6 of 2017, chalking up a victory at his first attempt, as the Tigers defeated the Cowboys 26-16 in Townsville.

Unfortunately, the Tigers would taste victory only five more times that year finishing in 14th place on the table. Wests went a lot better under Cleary in 2018 and they just missed out on the finals after finishing in 9th place, but just as it looked like a much needed rebuild was in progress, Cleary jumped off the bus, said goodbye to his players via text, and returned to Penrith to make a name for himself.

(Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

Cleary finished with a 41.9% win rate from his 43 games at the helm of the Tigers, and while that’s nothing to write home about, even worse was yet to come in the shape of former premiership winner in Maguire who took over in 2019.

Things didn’t go much better for the Tigers under Maguire’s “tough love” coaching approach, and with the added damage and distraction of the club’s boardroom machinations, it was no wonder that they slowly slid down the ladder from 9th in 2019 to 13th two years later.

Things really came to a head for Maguire in 2022 when he was punted after the Tigers managed just three wins in the first half of the season. Obviously, everything wrong with the Tigers must be the coach’s fault, but surely Maguire couldn’t be held responsible for the team’s performance for the rest of the season, as they won just one game under interim coach Brett Kimmorley, finished the year by conceding over 200 points in their last 5 games, and took out their first wooden spoon. All in all, 2022 was an utter disaster, even by Tigers’ standards, but was there a light at the end of the tunnel?

Cometh the hour and cometh the man, or in this case Tim Sheens 2.0, and the master plan was for Sheens to act as head coach during 2023 and 2024, then hand the clipboard to his assistant Marshall in 2025, and continue in his role as Director of Football, whatever that is. Of course, no one except the Tigers’ board and Sheens thought that this was going to work, and it proved to be another terrible year for the club.

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

They won just five games, lost their round 18 clash against the Cowboys by a record 74 points to nil, and once again finished on the bottom of the table. Then the dung then really hit the fan (and the fans for that matter), with Marshall stepping up to the head coaching role, the CEO and the board were punted, and Sheens was moved sideways into a mentoring role where he couldn’t do any harm.

Lamb aside, Benji takes the reins this year as the Tigers’ least experienced coach in their history, having served only very brief apprenticeship under Sheens during a period of instability in the club.

He’s coming off a very low base after the club finished with back-to-back wooden spoons in the last couple of years, so almost anything better than that in 2024 will be seen as an improvement, however Tigers’ fans have been waiting an awful long time for a team they can be proud of, and they deserve more, so the unrelenting pressure will be on Marshall from Round 1.

It will be interesting to see whether switching from one of the most experienced coaches in the game to an absolute novice will be either a master stroke or just another chapter in the Tigers’ ongoing coaching debacle.

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