Benji’s first Tigers game doesn’t matter, and neither does his first year – he should treat this all as a trial


Everyone has to have a first time, right?

Benji Marshall’s dugout debut comes this weekend away at Canberra, and if you believe the bookies, it probably won’t start well for the Wests Tigers’ new boss.

PlayUp have them $2.75 at time of writing, meaning that Canberra 13+ is slightly favoured over any sort of Tigers victory – and remember, Canberra never beat anyone by 13+.

The Raiders won last week and are, really, everything that the Tigers are not: they’re gritty, determined, experienced and, generally speaking, find a way to win.

The Tigers, historically at least, have either been easybeats or conspire to lose in increasingly outlandish ways, and it’s a trend that will continue until, well, it doesn’t.

That’s the task facing Marshall: he’s not just a rookie coach, he’s a rookie tasked with turning the club at which he became a legend as a player into a force again, unwinding over a decade of mediocrity in the process.

With that in mind, there’s an argument that he should be starting slow and moving slower, using this year entirely as a learning exercise while embedding a style of play and working out who can actually play it.

There’s a small inkling, albeit not publicly, that that has already happened.

When the team lists dropped on Tuesday, there were surprises everywhere, not least in the halves, where veteran returnee Aiden Sezer was named on the bench in favour of debutant teenager Lachlan Galvin.

Given that most people thought the whole point of Sezer’s signing was that he could provide a stopgap at halfback until Jarome Luai, the actual star arrival, began life in black and amber next year, it raised plenty of eyebrows to see the squad named as it was.

It spoke to a coach who was looking beyond this game, and perhaps even this season, in an attempt to get the process of improvement going early.

He’s not said as much, of course, but actions speak louder than words.

Shane Flanagan. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

A fellow new coach, albeit one with a much longer and more successful prior record, did actually vocalise what many would expect to be the plan behind the scenes all along.

Shane Flanagan, new in at the Dragons, openly admitted that 2024 wasn’t his priority, and while a few mocked him for it, it showed a refreshing break from the past tendency to pretend like every team can win every team. Spoiler alert: they can’t.

Marshall has picked both Galvin and another club debutant, Samuela Fainu, who will surely feature heavily next year.

He likely would have given Latu Fainu, Samuela’s highly touted brother, an NRL jersey had he not been suspended playing for Tonga late last year.

Solomona Faataape, a centre, also gets a go in the top grade for the first time, though that is likely more a result of this year’s biggest off-season arrival, Justin Olam, carrying an injury from the trials.

Throw them all together and there is a feeling of hope. It’s Round 2 – well, Round 1 for the Tigers – but if you’re going to throw players in, this is the time to do it.

Aidan Sezer dives over to score a try in Christchurch. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

The conventional wisdom would be that two give players a run when it doesn’t matter at the back end, and the Wests Tigers have made an artform of that.

Last year they fielded Kit Laulilii, Tallyn Da Silva and Josh Feledy, all 18, but mostly late in the year when everyone else had checked out. By giving the young guys live game time, Marshall is at least setting them up for success.

He can box clever on it, too. When the likes of Olam, Brent Naden and Adam Douehi return, he can spell the younger blokes and avoid overexposure, while he also has Sezer to step in as a controlling hand off the bench.

The trick is going to be managing expectations and proving that progress is being made, both of which will buy him a long leash from the fans.

Given Benji’s status as a club legend and the widespread hope that the change in ownership has at least reversed the trend off the field, it won’t take much to convince the longest suffering fans in the comp that some improvement is coming.

Nobody expects the Tigers to win on Saturday. Realistically, with a fixture list that sees them play the Sharks and Eels afterwards, there’s not much hope for the whole first month.

Where the club have gone wrong historically, and where Marshall can improve, is by letting his team stick in place and move towards form.

Cohesion is vital, and that only comes from playing together, even if that means losing together.

Benji Marshall. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

If they hold tight for the first three games, then they get the Dolphins and Dragons, likely two other cellar dwellers, where the Tigers could really focus their efforts.

It gets chastening again thereafter, with the Panthers and Broncos in quick succession, but opens up again after that, with the Bulldogs and Dolphins again within three weeks, either side of the Knights.

It’s a cliché to say that performances matter more than results at this time of year, but Benji is in the fairly unique position where that is true for the entire year.

Anything other than last would be an improvement, and really, even finishing last but making progress elsewhere would be absolutely fine.

Picking the young blokes is a good start to achieving the second goal. Ascertaining which of the more experienced cohort he actually wants to be there for 2025 is the next, and a lot of that comes from picking and sticking.

It’s obvious why Marshall can’t admit that this is all just a prelude, but internally, that has to be the messaging.

Learn as much as you can. Get systems in place. Next year is the one that matters.

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