‘The best I’ve ever seen’: Inside Sheens and Marshall’s Tigers revolution

By Michael Chammas

The interview was only 10 minutes old when Tim Sheens casually dropped a line that is certain to excite long-suffering Wests Tigers fans.

“The kids here are outstanding,” the newly minted head coach of the Tigers told the Herald. “They are better than I’ve seen at this club.”

It’s a huge call from a man who brought through Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah, before overseeing the development of James Tedesco and Mitchell Moses in the final days of his first stint at the club. But there are high hopes for a host of Tiger cubs headed by Justin Matamua, Fonua Pole, Kitione Kautoga, Sione Vaihu, Solomon Saukuru, Tuki Simpkins, Kit Laulilii, Luke Laulilii, Tallyn De Silva, Lachlan Galvin and Michael Tannous.

The Tigers are unashamedly turning back the clock. They’ve somehow picked up a new, hi-tech centre of excellence and plonked it back in the mid-2000s.

Down the corridor, Marshall and Farah are calling the shots. And the very same philosophy that guided the Tigers to premiership glory in 2005 is being applied to a crop of players largely oblivious to what success looks like.

Tim Sheens is head coach of the Tigers for the next two years.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer, The Sydney Morning Herald

One thing Sheens-coached players will tell you is the coach demands every person plays two positions. It’s why hooker Jake Simpkin has been training at halfback over the summer, and fullback Daine Laurie in the halves.

New recruit David Klemmer says he feels like a kid again, learning to play a brand of football many modern-day players are forced to forget in the top grade.

“Why shouldn’t it be that way, mate?” Sheens fires back.

“We use a football to score tries. To me, if it’s not about skilling them up and playing some football, why the hell are they here? Our philosophy is that we want to put points on the board. Robbie, Benji and I are the same in that regard.

“If you score, you get the ball back. And if you’ve got the ball, technically, unless you throw an intercept or drop the ball stupidly, they can’t score. The rule book says score more points than the opposition … and I like following the rule book.”

Back together: Benji Marshall and Tim Sheens at Tigers training in 2012.Credit:NRL Imagery

For the past decade at the Wests Tigers, it has been a seemingly never-ending cycle of hope, quickly replaced by disappointment.

There was the promise of the era of the Big Four – Tedesco, Moses, Luke Brooks and Aaron Woods. Then Ivan Cleary’s bus rolled out of town as fast as it drove in, with the young coach lured back to the Panthers. Cleary was replaced by Michael Maguire’s strangling style of football, which seemed to choke his own team.

Api Koroisau, John Bateman, Isaiah Papali’i and Klemmer – along with Sheens, Marshall and Farah – are the new faces of the club’s fourth stab at a rebuild.

“I made the point when I was head of rugby league, before I was even coaching, that in three years this club would turn the corner big time,” Sheens said.

“And not just wait three years to do it, it’ll be turning that corner all the way. We have a five-year plan. It’s not a major change in coaches, it’s just a transfer.

“Benji already has a say in who is coming to the club. There’ll be no, ‘Oh, I want to get rid of this player because it’s not my team’ from Benji.”

David Klemmer with his kids after a Tigers training session this week.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

The subtle crack at his predecessor speaks for the frustration felt by many at the Wests Tigers, who grew tired of Maguire privately blaming the roster for his underwhelming four years at the helm.

It recently got back to Sheens that Maguire had told people the veteran coach was coming home to take his job, a notion Sheens strongly refuted.

“You know differently, and I know differently,” Sheens said. “And if I was coming for his job, I’d have a five-year contract and I haven’t. It’s not the case. I’m a bit disappointed in that.

“It didn’t work out for Madge, but in saying that I didn’t particularly want the job straight up, as you very well know who I chased [Cameron Ciraldo], and got criticised for offering him [a five-year contract]. It’s funny how he’s now at the Bulldogs for five years, but anyway.”

While the Tigers went all-in for Ciraldo, the disappointment was quickly allayed by the excitement surrounding the Sheens-Marshall package deal.

Bulldogs head coach Cameron Ciraldo at Belmore Sportsground.Credit:Louie Douvis

The reality of the situation is Sheens handed Marshall, only 12 months retired, an NRL head coaching job from 2025 without having watched him coach a day in his life.

It’s a gamble in anyone’s books. But Sheens is convinced that his protégé has all the traits required to make it as a coach.

“He’ll kill it,” Sheens said. “He’ll make it, easy. There’s just no doubt. “In two years’ time he’ll be ready to go easy. In fact, I reckon in 12 months’ time I’ll have to watch my back.”

When Marshall sat down with Sheens to audition for the job that was only ever going to be Ciraldo’s until he exited the one-horse race, the meeting was just a few minutes old when Sheens realised that his former star five-eighth was ready.

Marshall, having made a successful transition from player to media commentator in his roles for Triple M and Fox League, no longer had a purpose.

“First thing Benji said was, even though he was earning good money and he was working with you guys in the media, he wasn’t getting any satisfaction out of it,” Sheens said.

Robbie Farah and Benji Marshall celebrate the 2005 grand final triumph with teammates.Credit:Getty

“The satisfaction he gets now if you sit around and see him talk to players and converse with them, and skill them, and work with them. You should see it, they just gather around him. They listen to everything he says. And he’s got the background to say, ‘Well, I’ve done it’. He’s getting a lot out of that and Robbie is the same.”

“I always said they were too smart for their own good. You could never bluff them. You had to be smart for those two kids to give you respect because they don’t suffer fools those boys.

“I’m an interim coach, basically. And I’m happy about that. I have my say still. I’ve still got the big stick, but at the end of the day if they want to run with something and I’m happy with it, I let them run with it because that’s teaching them what they need to do.”

One of the major tasks of 2023 will be for Marshall and Farah to unlock halfback Luke Brooks. The much-maligned halfback, who struggled to fit into Maguire’s game plan, is heading into the final season of his lucrative deal.

“The first thing you do is set up a game plan where he is involved, Offensively playing on his best side of the field that he plays on – the left side, with him at halfback,” Sheens said.

Wests Tigers playmaker Luke Brooks.Credit:Getty

“People are on him and on him and on him. Media … he seems to be a whipping boy. He’s withstood that really well. Benji and I are working really hard with all the spine, not just him, all the spine, to finally get a combination because the club hasn’t really settled on a combination for some time.”

“You can’t expect him to win every game for you. Everyone seems to think it’s the only thing a good halfback can do. Admittedly, there’s a lot of pressure on the pivots, but it’s not just the seven.

“To say the No.7 is the one that runs the game is not always true. A No.9 and a No.6 a No.1 is even more important. If you have a good team you’re playing with 14 men. That’s having your fullback turn up everywhere. If you haven’t, you’re playing with 12 men.”

Playing with 13 men, let alone 14, has often been a battle for the Wests Tigers.

“I promise you if we lose games, we won’t get beat,” Sheens says.

“People say, ‘Oh, what does that mean’? It means we will be having a go right until the end of the game.”

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