By Michael Chammas
Michael Maguire and the Wests Tigers have missed out on the finals again.Credit:NRL Photos
In this second part of our investigation into the Wests Tigers, we focus on the erosion of trust between coach, club and players that is restricting the joint-venture’s ability to capitalise on its off-field resurgence.
With $1.6 million to spend in the salary cap and four roster spots remaining in 2022, the window is open for the Tigers to start again. Will it be Michael Maguire? Or will the findings of the club’s ongoing internal review see them move in a different direction?
Part 1: A crisis of identity – the real tales from Tiger town
The day after Anthony Griffin was sacked by the Penrith Panthers, in August 2018, Wests Tigers coach Ivan Cleary fronted Wests Tigers directors in the boardroom at Wests Ashfield Leagues Club with cap in hand.
He proceeded to ask the club for its blessing to pursue an opportunity to coach his son Nathan at the Panthers. Until that moment, the Tigers had been hopeful Nathan Cleary would be joining them from Penrith the following year.
The coach was left under no illusion as to the club’s displeasure, but those in the room that night left resigned to the fact that all they had worked towards over the previous two years was about to unravel.
Cleary’s position was now untenable. His relationship with certain senior players had deteriorated. The one-time saviour was now public enemy No.1.
With the coaching merry-go-round cranking up at the end of 2018, the Tigers’ receptionist received a call from Michael Maguire’s business adviser, Daniel Zammit, who was gauging the club’s interest in the coach.
But the Tigers wanted Wayne Bennett. Benji Marshall, now in his second coming at the joint venture, could not speak highly enough of the master coach, having played under him at the Broncos and for the NRL All Stars.
Chief executive Justin Pascoe and then general manager of football Kelly Egan flew to Queensland and met with Bennett at the Novotel Twin Waters Resort on the Sunshine Coast.
Wayne Bennett was sent packing from the Broncos at the end of 2018.Credit:AAP
The veteran coach, whose relationship with the Broncos board had deteriorated to the point of no return, was willing to sign with the Tigers – but maintained he wasn’t going to walk out on his players and staff unless he was pushed from the final year of his deal.
The Tigers couldn’t wait for Brisbane to determine their fate, so they put a 10-day deadline on Bennett to decide.
While waiting, Pascoe and Egan flew to Auckland on a secret mission to meet Maguire, who was coaching New Zealand at the time. Their cover was blown when they turned up at Sydney Airport alongside the Tongan Test team.
Maguire, who had turned down an offer to succeed Trent Barrett as Manly coach a couple of months earlier, was unequivocal: he believed he could win.
And importantly, given the large sums invested in the contracts of certain players at the club, he said he could win with the squad at his disposal.
As the days went by, the staring contest between Brisbane and Bennett continued. Neither party blinked.
“I hated making the phone call to tell them I wasn’t coming but I told them I couldn’t walk out on the Broncos,” Bennett says. “Turns out they sacked me a couple of months later.”
The job was Maguire’s.
A CAP ON SPENDING
A common line in rugby league circles is that Maguire is the reason the Wests Tigers are struggling to recruit high-profile players. Maguire claims he and the club have been hamstrung by recruitment decisions made by Cleary and Egan.
Maguire claims that by resisting the temptation to overpay players to fix a short-term problem, he has shown a strong regard for the long-term future of the club.
“We could have gone out and overspent and done what previously happened, but I don’t want to,” Maguire says. “For what? The club just stays the same and the fans go on the same ride they have gone on forever. At some stage there needs to be a circuit-breaker. We are trying to balance a salary cap that was completely askew to get this place where it wants to be.
“There were bodies that were broken, bodies that couldn’t train and do the things required to do to be able to get to the highs that you need to. It doesn’t mean they’re bad people or anything like that.
“I want to be a part of the club that fixes up the errors of the past. I want to be remembered as that coach who stopped everyone talking about the past and finally were excited about the future, having built longevity for success. Whether or not people are willing to go the distance, time will tell.”
The club has shown patience. Maguire, who was aware of the club’s salary cap position when he took the job, has been afforded three seasons to turn things around.
His complaints about the roster do not wash with some at the club, considering 28 of the 30 players in the current squad were either purchased or extended by him.
The signings of Joseph Leilua and James Roberts, who the coach wants to retain again next year, have also cast doubt over the coach’s decisions. “I’m aware of every deal that goes on,” Maguire admitted.
Former South Sydney boss Shane Richardson, who axed Maguire at the end of 2017, is quick to defend the coach.
“A coach can only ever be as good as the roster and the club that’s behind him,” Richardson tells The Sydney Morning Herald.
Greg Inglis and Michael Maguire share a moment after South Sydney’s 2014 grand final triumph.Credit:NRL Photos
“I don’t think Madge has either in place … He’s a really good coach. He took us to a premiership, but in the end it was time that he and we moved on. It’s a decision for them to make now.”
The acquisitions of Daine Laurie, Shawn Blore and Stefano Utoikamanu, which were driven by general manager Adam Hartigan and recruitment analyst Scott Woodward, are proving astute.
“For long-term sustainability of our roster, we had to identify the best young kids in the competition and bring them to the club,” Hartigan says.
“We went really hard at Stefano. Daine Laurie was another example of that. We’ve worked hard on our pathways program with the aim of them coming from within our system in the future, not other clubs. We still want to recruit, but we want to be known as a development club.”
While there may be a clear and seemingly effective strategy in place, there is an argument to be made that the decision to target the best young talent in the game was forced upon the club by repeated strike-outs in the recruitment market.
Keen to return to Sydney, Josh Addo-Carr last year signed a memorandum of understanding with the Tigers stating that he would sign with them if Melbourne agreed to release him in 2021. Then he went into NSW Origin camp and stood up the Tigers.
Word later got back to the club that he had been advised by Blues teammates in camp to avoid playing under Maguire. He later signed with the Bulldogs.
A runaway Josh Addo-Carr during his debut season with the Wests Tigers.Credit:NRL Photos
Seven players in last year’s Blues squad – Luke Keary, Cody Walker, Cameron Murray, Nathan Brown, Angus Crichton, Cameron McInnes and Damien Cook – had previously been coached by Maguire at South Sydney.
“Everyone thinks I’m this lunatic,” Maguire says. “But I care for my players more than anything first, then I actually coach them.”
HIGHS AND LOWS
Maguire’s greatest strength is his biggest weakness. Those who know him say he’s 11 out of 10 all day, every day. His intensity is exhausting.
When he was appointed, there was a view within the club that such an approach was exactly what was needed. But results have gone backwards in Maguire’s three years in charge, even as the coach benefited from a $2 million increase in football department spending since Jason Taylor was coach in 2016.
Maguire’s methods appear to have worn thin on certain players. Multiple sources with knowledge of the situation have told the Herald that halfback Luke Brooks has not enjoyed his time under Maguire.
There’s a fear internally that the halfback and coach may not be able to work together next year.
Brooks’ management recently shopped him to the Bulldogs despite signing a lucrative four-year, $850,000-a-season extension until the end of 2023 when Maguire first arrived at the club.
Adam Doueihi, on the other hand, is one of the coach’s most staunch supporters, despite being unimpressed with Maguire over a perceived demotion when he was moved from five-eighth to centre earlier in the season.
Some players have also grown frustrated with the coach distancing himself from poor performances, referring to the team as “they” rather than “we” when expressing his dismay.
They say the constant berating, which was shown in Fox Sports’ Wild Wests: Tales from Tiger Town documentary, has dulled them to Maguire’s message.
The documentary is also a sore point with some, who were critical of how the players were portrayed, as opposed to the coach, given Maguire had last editing rights.
Robbie Farah, who played under Maguire at both the Rabbitohs and Tigers, believes the coach has mellowed since his days at Souths, when he reportedly tried to bring a boa constrictor into the Manly dressing rooms to provide his players a visualisation of how to strangle the opposition.
Michael Maguire approaches Robbie Farah after his final NRL game in 2019.Credit:GEtty
“I think Madge cops a bad rap,” he says. “For one reason or another over time there’s a perception on the style of coach he is that is completely false. He has changed a lot as a coach and a person over the past four or five years. I genuinely think he’s the right man for the job. He’s got a genuine care to turn this club around.”
Few can deny Maguire’s passion for the job. He hurts more than the players themselves after a defeat, according to those who know him well.
Nevertheless, incidents over the past three years have eroded the trust between Maguire and some of his players.
FEELING THE STRAIN
The common theme among the players stems from a belief that Maguire conveys mixed messages and is afraid of tough conversations.
There is also a level of concern from the playing group that what Maguire, who is no longer on speaking terms with Russell Packer and BJ Leilua, sometimes says to their faces may not be an accurate reflection of what he is saying behind the scenes.
Last year he told forward Alex Seyfarth he had a future at the club despite indicating in recruitment and retention meetings that he didn’t want him if the NRL was going to reduce squads from 30 to 28 due to COVID.
Hartigan told Seyfarth’s manager David Riolo that his client was no longer part of the coach’s plans.
Riolo confronted Pascoe to raise concerns over the mixed messaging from the club.
Benji Marshall felt something similar happened to him last year, with the once strong player-coach relationship deteriorating to the point where the 2005 premiership-winner refused to bring his family to his final game and left the match ball, which was presented to him, inside the Bankwest Stadium sheds.
Marshall, who earlier in the year had been dropped by the coach, saw it as a slap in the face that Maguire couldn’t own up to the club’s decision not to renew his contract.
Michael Maguire approaches an emotional Benji Marshall after his final game for the club last year.Credit:NRL Photos
Another gripe held at the Tigers is that the coach is quick to fall in and out of love with players.
Maguire told the club he didn’t want Michael Chee Kam beyond the end of this year, leaving him out of the side for most of the season.
After Chee Kam impressed in his return to the side late in the season, Maguire changed his mind but the utility was already in discussions with the Rabbitohs for 2022.
Multiple sources at Souths told The Sun-Herald they believed Maguire became paranoid in his final months before he was axed in 2017. He believed assistant Anthony Seibold undermined him.
There is a feeling at the Tigers that history may be repeating itself given Maguire’s reaction to the appointment of Tim Sheens, whose arrival in Australia has been pushed back to the end of October as he attempts to returns from England to take on a role as a club consultant.
Maguire wasn’t impressed in being left out of the loop until after the board signed off on the return of the club’s 2005 premiership-winning coach and told those close to him he fears he is losing control.
The club maintains it needed further football knowledge within its operation and didn’t require the blessing of the head coach, who has been challenged from within to surround himself with the right people.
During the 2021 pre-season, the board and chief executive extended Maguire’s deal until the end of 2023, despite him having a season still to run on his contract.
“At the time there was only one year left on Michael’s contract,” chairman Lee Hagipantelis said. “The club felt it was appropriate and necessary for establishing stability and to assist with recruitment and retention that we’d secure Michael’s services.”
He was asked if Maguire, who has an inferior coaching success rate to when Taylor was sacked at the Tigers in 2017, was under pressure.
“Yes he is. Just as I am in the role as chair. As is the board. As is the CEO,” Hagipantelis said.
“We all have a responsibility to this club, but more importantly to our fans and members to provide them an NRL team to be proud of. Have we done that this year? No we haven’t.
”One thing I have never done is question the absolute commitment and dedication of those within the organisation. However, that has not resulted in the level of success we anticipated or expected.”
They face a pay-out worth about $750,000 if they terminate his deal.
“If they keep doing that [axing coaches], they’ll keep getting what they have this whole time,” former Tigers coach Mick Potter said. “Knowing he’s a good coach with good methods, you stick solid for a long time.
“All of a sudden the coach then can dictate his roster and slowly filter out the people who aren’t rowing their boat in the right direction. He isn’t the problem, he’s part of the solution.”
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
Whether it is perception or reality, the effect has been the same. The narrative that suggests the Wests Tigers are a basket case has proven detrimental in the club’s pursuit of success.
A deep-dive into the club’s salary cap and financial position indicates the Tigers are finally set up to take the step they have been threatening to make for the past decade.
The Tigers have $1.6 million to spend on four players in 2022. The Jersey Flegg team finished the season undefeated, while the club’s reserve grade side sat in second spot when the competition was brought to a halt in July.
Off the field, there’s a new $75 million centre of excellence at Concord that will open its doors for the first time in March.
Question marks over why the Tigers don’t base themselves in the fast-growing south-west Sydney region talk to an identity issue.
With Wests Ashfield in control, there are those from the Campbelltown side of the club who believe the south-west is neglected due to geographical ties to the inner-west.
A 2016 Gemba report found Concord Oval was the more strategic and financially sound option over Carnes Hill, Campbelltown and Leichhardt.
The club is also in the process of setting up an academy in the south-west to maximise the pathway system being set up by Hartigan, Sheens and new staffers Brett Kimmorley and former Cricket Australia coaching and development manager Matt Betsey.
The Tigers have also managed to turn multimillion-dollar annual losses, where they once required a loan from the NRL, into profits over the last couple of years. That has been boosted by a 90 per cent increase in membership from 2016 to 2021.
“Everything there is in place for us to have success on the field,” Farah says of the work Pascoe and his staff have done in recent years.
“I can genuinely say that it is chalk and cheese from where we were five or six years ago to where we are now. It’s a totally different club to be around.”
The club’s 10-year deal with Venues NSW, in which it has been required to play four games a year at Stadium Australia or Bankwest Stadium, expires at the end of next season.
The club acknowledges its future lies in the south-west, with the NRL in dialogue with the NSW government over a new stadium in Liverpool to be shared between the Tigers and Bulldogs. The other option is Campbelltown.
“Speaking for myself, as to the options presented for a stadium, there is much to be said for Campbelltown, which would solidify a presence of the Wests Tigers all the way from the inner-west to the south-west,” Hagipantelis says.
Decisions will be made in the next few weeks that will, like they did in the aftermath of Sheens’ exit in 2012, reverberate through the organisation for the next decade. If they get it right, the Tigers may just finally realise their potential.
“At their best and in their prime, they will compete with any of the big clubs across the entire premiership,” former NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg says.
“They have untapped potential. If they can realise that potential, it would be a huge boost for them and the sport. They will become one of the biggest clubs in the country. They are the sleeping giants.”
Part 1: A crisis of identity – the real tales from Tiger town
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