Sure you still want the job, Benji?
The massive challenge facing Wests Tigers coach-in-waiting Benji Marshall and mentor Tim Sheens over the next few years was emphatically underlined as the joint venture club crashed to a 18-16 defeat against an under-manned Penrith at CommBank Stadium on Sunday.
The premiers were without seven Origin players — Nathan Cleary, Isaah Yeo, Liam Martin, Jarome Luai, Brian To’o, Stephen Crichton and Api Koroisau — but still had just enough class and poise to claim the inaugural Royce Simmons Cup.
Co-captain James Fisher-Harris, playing his 150th game, crashed over under the posts with six minutes to go to seal a remarkable victory.
It’s a game the Tigers appeared to have in their keeping when a Ken Maumalo try gave them the lead with 10 minutes remaining, but nothing is a given with this club.
Marshall and Sheens both watched on as the Tigers hit the self-destruct button.
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The effort was there as always but it was a typically infuriating and frustrating performance.
The Tigers play like a car without a steering wheel at times – unpredictable, erratic and without direction.
The game was always there for the winning but they want to do everything the hard way.
The home side had two tries disallowed and, at one stage, was penalised for failing to feed a scrum in time.
It’s that sort of ill-discipline and indecision the coaching coalition of Sheens and Marshall will be working overtime to eradicate when they combine forces in 2023.
Penrith coach Ivan Cleary, with one eye on the run home to the finals, gambled on giving all his stars an RDO, but it proved a masterstroke.
Not only did his side bank another win – its 16th of the season – but all his main men will benefit greatly from a week off as we head into the business end of the season.
The Tigers led early via a try to winger Junior Tupou, but it was on the other side of the ball where their deficiencies were ruthlessly exposed.
Viliame Kikau and Dylan Edwards were given miles of room to work their magic and didn’t they cash in.
Kikau’s silky catch-pass put Izack Tago over midway through the first half before the big man grabbed a try of his own minutes later.
Chasing Sean O’Sullivan’s clever grubber kick, Kikau booted the ball ahead before Daine Laurie could reach it, regathering and swan-diving over the line before celebrating with an imaginary cava session in the in-goal.
The Tigers hit back through an Adam Doueihi try to make it 12-10 just before the break and thought they had reclaimed the lead with seconds left on the clock, only for the bunker to overturn Asu Kepaoa’s four-pointer after ruling Tupou offside as he chased a kick downtown.
The later Fisher-Harris try broke their hearts, ensuring interim coach Brett Kimmorley is still searching for his first win at NRL level.
Maybe, just maybe, the Tigers have finally worked out the best way to use Jackson Hastings, Luke Brooks and Doueihi in the same team.
Brooks and Doueihi lined-up in the halves with Hastings shifting to lock as the positional musical chairs continued.
You wouldn’t go as far as saying it was runaway success, but there was enough there to suggest this could be the future.
Brooks and Hastings made decent contributions while Doueihi, in particular, thrived in his preferred position at five-eighth, surely ending the debate over what number he should have on his back.
The next heavyweight challenger to step into the ring against the Panthers – coming out of the blue corner from Sydney’s south – are the Cronulla Sharks.
Both teams head into Saturday night’s top four shoot-out on the back of long winning runs – eight in a row for Penrith and five straight for Craig Fitzgibbon’s men.
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The Sharks have seen off title contenders Melbourne and North Queensland over the past fortnight to cruise into third spot.
The Panthers are another a step up in class, especially at home and with their returning Origin stars rested and refreshed.
“Our focus is internally. We’re still trying to find out who we are and where we’re going. We still haven’t arrived by no means,” Cronulla captain Wade Graham said.
“We’re going in the right direction but you’re never the finished product.”
New chapter added to the Cleary-Tigers rivalry
It hasn’t reached the ‘Book of Feuds’ levels between the Rabbitohs and Roosters, but the rivalry between a couple of western Sydney clubs continues to intensify with Luke Garner the latest chapter in one of rugby league’s most fascinating stories.
When Ivan Cleary arrived at the Wests Tigers in 2017, he was seen as the man who could turn things around at a club that has been starved of success since their 2005 premiership.
He told players to get on the bus as he rebuilt the club, bringing in veterans and getting rid of anyone who didn’t want to be there.
The results were encouraging with the club producing a couple of gritty upsets over the Roosters and Storm to start the 2018 season giving long-suffering fans reason to believe that the club was heading in the right direction.
But then the driver ditched the bus to return to Penrith to coach his son, Nathan. You can’t begrudge a father for doing that, and you only have to look at their recent success to know it was the right move for Ivan.
Panthers fans are glad to have him back, but Tigers supporters haven’t forgotten. Cleary blew them kisses after a game a few years ago, while he was called a banker at Leichhardt Oval last year, or at least that’s what it sounded like.
And even though he’s no longer at the club, Cleary and the Tigers seem locked at the hip in more ways than one.
That’s where Luke Garner comes in. He’s signed a two-year deal to head west next season where he’s set to replace Bulldogs-bound Viliame Kikau on the left edge.
Is it a coincidence? Probably. But he’s the latest player to make the move, joining guys like Matt Eisenhuth and Robert Jennings, while the Tigers have enticed former Panthers James Tamou and Daine Laurie to Concord, with Api Koroisau set to join them next year.
“I haven’t really thought about [the rivalry] and it’s something that we might address during the week,” Garner said ahead of Sunday’s game at CommBank Stadium.
“I don’t know if there’s something going on with the recruitment or if we’re just swapping players here and there. Obviously Ivan was here and he’s got a big influence over why some of the Tigers players end up at Penrith.
“It might be the elephant in the room-type feeling. They’re probably the benchmark in the competition so we’ll just look to match them.
“It’s a little bit of a weird one, but I’m not there yet. I’m still playing for the Tigers so I’ll look to put my best foot forward and jag the two competition points.”
Losing players and seeing them turn into stars has been a real issue for the Tigers over the years, and there are fears that Garner will develop into an elite edge forward playing outside some of the game’s biggest stars.
Josh Aloiai is one of the players who left the Tigers and has built his game up after a few seasons with the Sea Eagles, and he’s confident Garner can do something similar at Penrith.
“Garner is a good friend of mine so I’m happy for him,” Aloiai said.
“This will be a good move for him because Penrith is one of the best systems at the moment and it shows with how they’re going on the field. He’ll thrive having that kind of system and that will bring out his best.”
The Cleary factor was one of the reasons Garner decided to join the Panthers after the pair spent some together in 2018 when the 26-year-old made his NRL debut.
“I only played a couple of games under him so I didn’t get used to it too much. But that’s something I’ll think about once I get there,” he said.
“I know a few boys over there as well and they’re obviously a good side so there were a couple of things that made me want to go over there.
“I hope I fit into the team really well and play my role. That’s something that I’ll start thinking about when I get over there.”
Garner said working with assistant coach Andrew Webster was another big reason why he wanted to join the Panthers, but the former interim coach at the Tigers won’t be there in 2023 after he agreed to take the reins at the Warriors.
“I know Ivan very well and Andrew Webster was here as well, but unfortunately he won’t be there. I was spewing about that news but I’m stoked for him to get a head coach role because that’s what he wanted,” the back-rower said.
“I think Webby will do well. He was a really good coach here. You look at how Penrith are going and I’m sure he contributes to that. I’m just stoked he gets that gig and gets to show what he can really do.”
The Cleary subplot will be one of the biggest talking points going into Sunday’s game, but the Tigers have bigger things to worry about.
They are rooted to the foot of the table, they’ve just announced a new coaching structure going forward, and they’ve finally made changes to the halves after a rough run of results.
A win against the ladder-leaders seems out of the question, but their hopes have been given a boost with Penrith’s seven Origin stars earning the week off.
The Tigers did beat the Panthers in almost identical circumstances last year, but Garner doesn’t think it’ll be as easy this time around.
“The Panthers have plenty of depth and they’re the benchmark of the competition so there’s never a good week to get them,” he said.
“We beat them here at Leichhardt Oval last year so we’ll be looking to do the same again.”