‘Didn’t think I’d be back’: Sheens to cap remarkable Tigers return with milestone match

Tim Sheens’ first game back in charge of the Wests Tigers will also be his 250th with the club.

“The world of rugby league, you never know what’s going to happen,” Sheens says. “I didn’t think I’d ever be back here, that’s for sure.”

Here he is at Leichhardt Oval, clipboard in hand, for a second stint as coach of the joint-venture club, at the ripe old age of 72 and 11 years after he was sacked by the club. The milestone will be marked on Sunday when the only man to coach the Wests Tigers to premiership glory oversees the club’s season-opening clash against the Gold Coast.

Sheens describes himself as an “interim” coach, warming the chair until his protege, Benji Marshall, is ready to take over. However, the pair, who combined spectacularly during the Tigers’ storied 2005 triumph, aren’t the only fan favourites helping to guide the club back to glory.

Sheens aside, the club has employed a total of 14 players who have pulled on the jumper of either Wests Tigers, Balmain or Western Suburbs. Combined, it is a total of 1956 games of experience, brought together in the hope that they can create the club DNA required to shake off the wooden spoon and rise to the top.

Some of the former players – including Marshall, Robbie Farah, John Skandalis, Chris Heighington and Pat Richards – were part of the 2005 triumph. The others – Chris Lawrence, Paul Sironen, Shannon Gallant, Wayne Lambkin, Ronnie Palmer, Simon Dwyer, Tim Grant and Danny Stapleton – are employed in various roles after making their mark on the field. Even the Tigers’ media manager, Chris Warren, made five appearances for the Magpies.

Tim Sheens will coach his 250th game at Wests Tigers on Sunday when he makes a remarkable return to Leichhardt Oval.Credit:Rhett Wyman

“There’s a lot of brains, a lot of experience, lots of experiences. So far so good,” Sheens says.

“We haven’t been arguing too much. There’s a lot of club footy – they have a real feel for the club, no doubt about that. It wasn’t something we necessarily set out to do, but the people around in that [successful] period of time are very good people.

“They are football people, they make a living out of football, and they love it here. Having people like that around doesn’t hurt.”

The Sun-Herald had arranged for Sheens and the 14 former players to pose for a photograph together. However, some of the staffers, particularly Marshall and Farah, didn’t want to be seen courting publicity for a side coming off a last-place finish.

Tim Sheen and the Tigers celebrate their grand final win in 2005.Credit:Craig Golding

“It’s because they haven’t done anything yet,” Sheens says. “They don’t like living off their reputations as players. They are now coaching. When Benj gets down to work he’s really trying to get a result for the team. That energy is infectious.

“They don’t want to be out there spruiking until they’ve done something. I’ve drilled them that way. I used to tell them in the old days, you’re nobody until you’ve won some games and lost some, and know the difference. You need to kick someone’s bum, get your bum kicked, win by a point, lose by a point.

“All that comes into it. Then you can say you’re a professional and know what you’re talking about. They are babies as coaches. They haven’t coached a competition game.”

Sheens himself was reluctant to talk about his milestone match.

The Wests Tigers brains trust

Tim Sheens – 249 games (as coach)

Benji Marshall 257

Robbie Farah 277

Chris Heighington 201

Pat Richards 82

John Skandalis 249 (Western Suburbs 64, Wests Tigers 185) 

Chris Lawrence 253

Paul Sironen 247 (Balmain)

Shannon Gallant 12

Wayne Lambkin 18 (Western Suburbs)

Ronnie Palmer 11 (Balmain)

Simon Dwyer 35

Tim Grant 46

Danny Stapleton 14 (Balmain)

Chris Warren 5 (Western Suburbs)

TOTAL: 1956

“It’s surprising to do 250 at one club though, it’s nice,” he says. “I’m hoping it will be a win – I don’t care what number it is.”

The old heads on the staff have been complemented by new faces on the field. After missing out on a raft of recruitment targets in recent years, the club has poached Isaiah Papali’i, David Klemmer, John Bateman and Charlie Staines. The most prized signature, however, is that of Apisai Koroisau, a two-time premiership-winning hooker who made such an immediate impression that he was handed the captaincy.

There remains a glimmer of hope that Mitchell Moses could yet join them after the Tigers tabled a deal that would make him the highest-paid player in the game, although the halfback is tipped to remain at Parramatta.

Should the Tigers miss out, they will have cash to splash on the open market. It’s a very different situation to 2005, when Sheens won the whole thing with a squad that was $600,000 below the then $3.6 million salary cap due to debts to head office.

“I’m thinking of building the team strong enough to go in and make a go of it, not just, ‘Oh, wow, we made the eight.’”

There is also a belief the joint-venture outfit has some of the best young juniors in the game. Those youngsters will be pressing for first-grade selection at about the time Marshall takes over as coach in two years, part of a transition plan that will result in Sheens staying on in the background.

“I’m letting him to run with things; I’m letting him experiment with things,” Sheens says of Marshall during a breakfast chat at Organica Cafe at Concord.

“If I want my say, I have my say. In the old days, you ask Warren Ryan and he’d say the reserve grade coach is trying to get you. That’s not the case. This is a handover; it’s a done deal. The more I push him and can prepare him for it, I see that as my role.”

Sheens is adamant Marshall will be a success, despite only recently ending his storied playing career.

Robbie Farah and Benji Marshall celebrate the 2005 grand final triumph with teammates. They are now assistant coaches as the club looks to begin a new era.Credit:Getty

“I interviewed him here, just behind you,” he says, pointing to a nearby table. “He was not satisfied with where his [working] life was going in the media, even though he was making a lot of money.

“He threw all that away to get into coaching. If you’re going to be a coach, you’ve got to be full on.

“It’s not easy with a young family, and he has a beautiful young family. As an assistant coach he’s doing really well, but we’ll see in two years’ time. This pre-season he has grown exponentially.”

Tigers fans will be cautiously optimistic that there are better times ahead. Unless they drop a further rung down the ladder – which is technically possible given the inclusion of the Dolphins this season – the only way is up.

The final trial win against Canberra gave a glimpse of the style of football that will be played this year. It is the type of flamboyant game that won the club it’s only premiership, but it remains to be seen whether it can be as successfully employed with Marshall and Farah in the coaches box rather than on the field.

“If you want to go into the semis, you want to go in strong with a chance to win it,” Sheens says.

“The first year you might dip your toe in at eighth and go straight out the door but, to me, that’s not what I’m thinking. I’m thinking of building the team strong enough to go in and make a go of it, not just, ‘Oh, wow, we made the eight’.

“As an optic that would be fine, people would see we went from last to eighth or whatever, but the players don’t see that. I don’t see that. We’re aiming for higher than that.”

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