Tetchy Tim Sheens is not the problem in Tiger Town
Chief Sports Writer
March 20, 2023 — 3.45pm
A couple of years ago, I phoned a prominent Wests Tigers official before writing a column in support of coach Michael Maguire, who was getting whacked from so many directions he was starting to resemble a tiger-shaped piñata.
Maguire’s a good man and coach who didn’t deserve to be wearing the blame for all the Tigers’ ills, I figured.
“I don’t care what you write,” the official said. “As long as you look after me.”
That pretty much captures the dramas over the last decade at the Tigers, where self-preservation is valued above success; where “winning the narrative” is regarded above systemic change; where the in-house barber is the most-publicised feature of the new $78 million centre of excellence.
The Tigers eventually sacked Maguire and ushered in a coaching dream team of club legends: Tim Sheens, Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah.
The crucible of this idea — or at least bringing back Sheens — was a lunch at which Sheens, chairman Lee Hagipantelis and chief executive Justin Pascoe were present, and a News Corp columnist floated the possibility.
And then, like magic, nice person! — it happened. You couldn’t make this stuff up, could you?
The Tigers’ 26-22 loss to Canterbury in sweltering conditions at Belmore on Sunday afternoon leaves them in a familiar position: winless and rooted to the bottom of the ladder.
But it’s early days and you can only assume Sheens will be afforded greater respect, support and patience than Maguire, who had the drums beating for his sacking in the background for most of his tenure.
Tigers management and a section of their fans believe the rugby league media is obsessed with their demise. In some respects, they are right. Journalists love a demise, unless it’s their own.
Yet much of the noise about the Tigers often starts from within the club itself, including news — twice — that Maguire was about to be sacked.
The tone of rugby league coverage has changed dramatically since Sheens last coached in the NRL, in 2012, mostly in size and volume of online stories - and you can tell he is becoming frustrated.
He couldn’t understand how the relatively minor incident involving Tommy Talau, David Klemmer and former Tigers player Jackson Hastings turned into an enduring saga for much of last week. Imagine if punches had been thrown?
Sheens had even less time for straightforward questions about the backline reshuffle midway through the second half against the Bulldogs in which five-eighth Adam Doueihi was moved to fullback and Brandon Wakeham into the halves alongside Luke Brooks.
The reshuffle sparked a Tigers comeback after they had looked legless for most of the match.
“No, I don’t want to make any call on that,” Sheens said. Asked later if the move was pre-planned, he said: “I don’t want to talk about it. I’m not going to justify what I did.”
On face value, his tetchy response suggested he was under pressure after a winless start. In reality, it was a coach being loyal to his players: he hadn’t yet spoken to those involved and wasn’t going to start the discussion in the press. Maybe he should’ve said that.
Nevertheless, you don’t have to be the game’s greatest thinker to understand the positional changes, with the Tigers trailing 20-6, were born out of pure frustration.
Doueihi and Brooks again looked like strangers who have never met hooker Api Koroisau, who has become the focal point of the Tigers’ attack.
Koroisau’s frustration in the first three matches, including the season opener when Sheens used him off the bench, has been there for all to see. I’m expecting a James Harden-like eye roll at any moment.
Against the Bulldogs, he was at his scheming best, running, faking, double-pumping. The only problem was none of his teammates supported him.
When they did, it turned to porridge. In the second half, Koroisau scooped up the ball at dummy half, scooted down the short side and passed to Brooks, who subsequently threw the ball behind Asu Kepaoa.
The Tigers’ biggest job is getting Brooks to find his mojo again — he was the Dally M halfback of the year in 2018 — but it’s going to take time. When Wakeham came on, and started playing more direct, Brooks suddenly joined the party.
You won’t hear Sheens making excuses about injuries or players coming back to training late because of World Cup duties late last year.
You won’t hear him talking about the lack of depth in the back row, where they are missing Isaiah Papali’i through suspension and relying on Caspar-white Englishman John Bateman to eventually find his feet.
Sheens’ old sparring partner, Wayne Bennett, 73, has the Dolphins humming atop the NRL ladder with an entirely new side that hadn’t met each other until November 1 last year.
Sheens has been around long enough to know seasons can start slowly and finish magnificently. In 2005, the Tigers lost five of their first nine matches, including four straight, before winning the competition.
This Tigers team isn’t in the same suburb as that one. It might never be.
But Sheens, Marshall and Farah deserve time to turn the beat around. The outside noise will always be there, especially around the Tigers.
The question is whether those who run the club can hold their nerve — and shut their mouths.
The revolution at the Wests Tigers will take time. Can those who run the club hold their nerve and shut their mouths?