It was another season to forget for Wests Tigers fans, with the joint merger club picking up a second straight wooden spoon.
Their five-year-plan, which was met with mixed reaction at the start of the season, has already fallen by the wayside, with coach Tim Sheens replaced by assistant Benji Marshall a season earlier than anticipated.
It’s not a stretch to suggest that at times they were the league’s laughing stock, dealing with a myriad of issues which culminated in Sheens’ departure.
With Marshall’s appointment, Tigers fans will be hoping for a fresh start from 2024, with the silver lining being that the only direction they can head is up.
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Read on for the Wests Tigers’ 2023 season review.
Manly launch 45 second raid on Tigers | 00:32
2023 Record: 4 wins, 20 losses – 17th position
What went right: For all their shortcomings this season, the Tigers have struck gold with exciting fullback Jahream Bula.
Sheens earmarked Bula at the start of the season, saying the 21-year-old will “be a kid who comes out of nowhere”.
The outgoing coach was correct, with Bula’s addition to the side as a debutant for the Round 8 side somewhat of a surprise. However, Bula quickly showed he belonged in the NRL and hasn’t looked back and there’s no doubt he is a player you can build a team around.
“He’s just a pure athlete, it doesn’t matter what sport you’d put him in he would do well in it,” Tigers skipper Api Koroisau said of Bula earlier this year.
“We needed a spark and the coaches called on him and he has just delivered since.”
Speaking of Koroisau, he was also a shining light for the Tigers. He showed off his versatility over the final rounds when moving into halfback, but there’s no doubt he is at his best when in the dummy-half role.
He’s crafty, tough-as-teak, and is a player that leads by example.
The former Panther and Sea Eagle has been around successful organisations and even in what is a dark time for the club, his experience and leadership will be leant upon.
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His penalty goal from the sideline to beat the Dolphins in Round 25 was one of the highlights of the 2023 campaign.
Emerging forward Stefano Utoikamanu’s strong play resulted in a Blues jersey for State of Origin Game II, although he only played 11 minutes.
In addition to the late win over the Dolphins, there were a couple of other results throughout the season which would have given Tigers fans plenty to smile about.
A gritty 12-8 win against a mostly full-strength Panthers side in Round 9 ended a 273-day run without a win. Bula and outgoing half Luke Brooks starred that night.
The arrival of the Fainu brothers from 2024 is a tip of the hat to the Tigers’ recruiting team, considering how highly they are regarded.
Latu is an exciting playmaker who starred for the under 19’s NSW side this season, with his older brother Samuela also featuring in that win over Queensland.
Expect to see both feature in first grade next season.
Some glimpses in a mostly dark year.
What went wrong: We will start with the coaching kerfuffle.
There were mixed reactions around Tim Sheens’ appointment, considering he hadn’t coached in the NRL since 2012 when he was sacked by the Tigers.
It was meant to be Sheens’ team for two seasons with Benji Marshall to be brought along as an assistant in that time before being promoted, however Marshall finds himself in the position a full season earlier despite having no head coaching experience on the CV.
Sheens’ departure was labelled a “circus act” by Fox League’s James Hooper.
“The five-year plan that was devised… has now been slashed to four years,” Hooper said on NRL 360.
“It comes off the back of Sheens having some concerns about how much longer he could remain in that role as the Wests Tigers front person and head coach.
“His agent called (Tigers chairman) Lee Hagipantelis last week to outline the fact that Tim felt he was no longer in the right state to remain as head coach of the club so bang, Benji Marshall has been saloon passaged straight in.”
There were reports of a rift between Sheens, Marshall and recruitment manager Scott Fulton, who was hired mid-season and without the coaches knowing.
Fulton’s godfather Peter Peters threw gas on the fire when he suggested Marshall wanted to sign certain players that were represented by a management company that Benji had a share in. That caused the Tigers’ brass to go into damage control.
The role of CEO Justin Pascoe has also been heavily scrutinised.
There were his bizarre actions during a home loss to the Broncos in Round 5. Since, he has hardly been heard from, with Hagipantelis fronting the media to answer the hard questions for the rest of the year.
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Raging Roosters maul Tigers | 01:59
Pascoe has been CEO at Tiger Town since 2015, with the club yet to make the finals in his time at the helm.
The Daily Telegraph’s Brent Read believes Pascoe deserves to be under “immense pressure.”
“The calls for his head are pretty constant. For the eight or nine years that he has been (at the Tigers), the club has never made the finals,” Read said on Triple M.
On the field, the Tigers lost their first seven games of the season, with their season essentially over before the end of April.
While it didn’t make or break their season, the devastating injury to Adam Doueihi was an unfortunate aspect of 2023. Doueihi suffered his third ACL tear in his left knee in the Easter Monday loss to the Eels and isn’t likely to be back on the field until late 2024.
It was another blow to a popular member of the Tigers, with Sheens labelling it a “nightmare.”
In terms of on-field results, it’s hard to pinpoint a worse performance from any club all season than what the Tigers dished out in a 74-0 loss to the Cowboys – the worst losing margin since 1935.
A 54-12 flogging at the hands of Manly in Round 27 put the nail in the coffin of what was truly a horrific season.
What they need: It sounds glaringly obvious, but what this club and fan base needs more than anything is some hope.
Will they play finals next year? Probably not, but this is a team that has won just eight from 48 over the last two seasons.
If they can pick up at least seven or eight wins next season under rookie coach Marshall, it will be a sign that they are on an upward spiral.
The bar’s so low now, I think Tigers fans will just be happy for the team to show some sort of improvement.
After a season like this, it’s hard to pinpoint a position the Tigers need the most help in.
They’ve signed veteran halfback Aidan Sezer to a one year deal, a move which reportedly wasn’t one the whole club were keen on, but he is merely a stopgap until a better option is found for 2025.
So, finding that long-term solution in the halves is another focus for Marshall and the Tigers moving forward, with the hope Fainu can grow into that role if given the time to develop.
The Tigers were the lowest scoring team in 2023 and lacked strike power in the backline.
Their lack of depth at centre and on the wing were evident as the season wore down which will be exasperated by the departure of Tommy Talau, who is off to Manly next season.
Going: Luke Brooks (Sea Eagles), Tommy Talau (Sea Eagles), Daine Laurie (Panthers)
Coming: Aidan Sezer (Super League), Latu Fainu (Sea Eagles), Samuela Fainu (Sea Eagles), Jayden Sullivan (Dragons)