After shutting the door on signing Tevita Pangai Jnr. due to the expensive price tag the Tongan international was asking for, it appears the Wests Tigers have chosen player development instead of trying to buy cornerstone pieces.
Although missing out of Pangai’s signature hurts a lot of Tigers fans (including myself), the argument can be made that the rumoured 700k price tag that the Broncos forward is asking for poses too much of a risk for the club as he hasn’t shown he can be a consistent performer week in and week out. While teams like the Bulldogs have caught headlines with signing top-tier talent on big contracts which might lead to some success but will never be sustainable long term, the Tigers have a real chance to build something sustainable long-term if they play their cards right.
I say that the Bulldogs method of recruitment isn’t sustainable because, in a salary cap league, it is impossible to build long-term success in the open market unless you’re the Roosters. The reason for this is because when you’re a struggling team like the Bulldogs and Tigers and you decide to recruit from outside your system, more often than not, you’re going to have to offer more than market value to land the player. Once a club makes a few of these types of signings like the Bulldogs have with Nic Cotric and Corey Allan, your salary cap becomes a problem quickly if the players you sign don’t live up to the price tag you signed them on.
The Tigers for the first time in a few years finally have the chance to correct the mistakes made under Ivan Cleary and develop a squad that can achieve sustainable success. This might be a tough road in terms of the rest of 2021 as well as 2022 with the clubs only adding Jackson Hastings and Oliver Gildart at the time of writing this but there is some hope for the future. After the Tiger’s loss to Melbourne last week, I think I speak for all Wests Tigers fans when I say that the fan base experienced a new low not felt for a very long time. None of the Tigers players who took the field showed the attributes and passion that the fan base expects from anyone who puts on that black and orange which has been a problem all year but how do does the club do the impossible and turn around the culture of the club? I remember the great Phil Gould once said in Rugby League that when you’re flying high and winning, things are never as good as they seem and when you’re losing, the opposite is also true and things are never as bad as they seem.
What the Tigers have going for them
One thing the Wests Tigers have going for them is the emerging talent coming through the grades. The Tigers are in a similar position compared to 2012 where they have a struggling first-grade team but a lot of talent coming through the ranks. What the Tigers failed to do the first time was keep the right players which have led back to square one in terms of trying to build sustainable success. Most Tigers fans know about the potential of players like Shawn Blore, Stefano Utoikamanu, Alex Seyfarth, Tuki Simpkins, and Jake Simpkin but the Jersey Flegg team is undefeated and coming first in the Jersey Flegg competition. While it’s hard to follow the Jersey Flegg because it’s not shown on television anymore, from what I’ve seen as well as other reports, there could be some real gems that go on to play first-grade. A player that has impressed me from what I’ve seen of him is the halfback Kade Hill. A Queenslander who played for Keebra Park, Hill is an extremely talented play-maker with an impressive running game. As a player comparison, Hill reminds me a lot of a young DCE in terms of his build and natural inclination to run the ball more than organizing as a halfback. The fullback Logan Dillon is also a very impressive prospect due to not only his speed but also his determination and the energy he brings to a team. While Tigers fans want to go after Brandon Smith, the Jersey Flegg Captain Rua Ngatikaura reminds me of the Cheese in terms of his build and how he plays the game 100 miles per hour. The club also has high hopes for Mavoni Tuifua and Israel Ogden, two big power runs that play Prop and Centre respectively. On top of this, Brandon Tumeth and Fonua Pole have gone from playing for Balmain in the SG ball to Jersey Flegg to reserve Grade in the space of a few months which shows how much stock the club has put on the two players. If Michael Maguire, Adam Hartigan, and Tim Sheens can surround these mentioned players with the right veteran leadership and culture, the club can avoid the mistakes of the past and finally build a sustainable future where Finals Footy is an expectation rather than a hope. Not all juniors are going to turn into first-grade players which is why the Tigers need to continue to grow their pathways systems in Balmain and especially where the Magpies operate in Western Sydney. The club seems to be on the right path in this regard with the recent hiring of Brett Kimmorley, Matthew Betsey, and Tim Sheens.
What the Tigers need to do better
Most fans will agree that the team as it is currently constructed really lacks veteran leadership and accountability for performance. Although a great leader off the field, James Tamou has struggled to provide any impact on the field averaging around 30 minutes as well as 9 runs for 83 meters a game. These stats for a starting Prop aren’t great and after facing some of the heavyweight packs in the competition, we’ve come up short and it’s because the team doesn’t have any real consistent veteran performers in the forwards or backs for that matter. Alex Twal consistently produces for the Tigers week in and week out but his game lacks X-factor in the sense that he’s not really the kind of forward that will break a game open with a dynamic run or tackle. I’m not knocking Twal because every successful team has that Glue guy like Matt Prior that does his job, I’m just saying that all the successful teams have players that they can rely on week in and week out to produce the goods and the Tigers are really lacking in terms of veteran leadership. When jake Simpkin plays in the team, the Tigers officially have the youngest team in the league on average and with that comes inconsistent results. In the modern NRL, you simply can’t just rely on rookies week in and week out, it just doesn’t work. Look what happened to the Tigers between 2014 and 2016. With a young exciting core of Luke Brooks, James Tedesco, and Mitchell Moses, the highs were high but ultimately those teams never had any success because there was no real veteran presence that took the pressure off the rookies. The Tigers need to do a much better job of identifying veteran players that can still contribute to the first-grade team while the younger players develop into first-graders.
Yes, this means we should try and sign Dale Finucane on a reasonable deal. Even though I think that he is trying to help Finucane out with his next contract in terms of value, when Bellamy wraps a player for his preparation, you take notice. Finucane on a 3-year deal on around the 600k mark while risky isn’t the end of the world and the culture that he would bring from the Melbourne Storm system would be invaluable. As a coach, Maguire can only do so much and at the moment it looks like the playing group is lacking real leaders which is the natural result of consistent turnover at the club. The problem that the Tigers made in the past was that the contracts they dished out for the veteran players were far too long and have come back to haunt the club. Moses Mbye and Russell Packer have been nightmares not just because they haven’t provided value for money but also because you need your leaders to be cornerstones of the team and the Storm game exposed a few players in this regard.
Rumor has it that Tim Sheens wants to priorities players with over 150 caps to the squad and I think the addition of a more vocal half like Jackson Hastings will help in this regard.
For Tigers fans, the struggle isn’t over yet and it still might have some ways to go but hopefully, the Tigers realize that the only way forward towards long-term success is junior development.