September 3 2016 - 4:53PM
How cultural change brought Wests Tigers back from the brink
At this point last season, Wests Tigers were also deeply invested in an NRL match in which they played no part.
Had Newcastle beaten Penrith in that round-26 encounter, the Tigers would have been wooden-spooners. This is what happens when your destiny is determined by others.
A year on and Tigers fans lent their support to the Cowboys on Saturday night – albeit for 80 minutes – as North Queensland beat Gold Coast to give the joint venture outfit everything to play for at Leichhardt Oval on Sunday.
Much has happened since that fateful Panthers-Knights clash. Coach Jason Taylor has made good on his promise to drop Robbie Farah in one of those career-defining decisions that has been justified. The Tigers fullback is now the NSW fullback after James Tedesco found form and fitness at the same time. And the joint-venture outfit was in contention for something other than the spoon coming into the final round of the season.
Yet perhaps the greatest turnaround has occurred off the field. The sometimes antagonistic relationship between Wests and Balmain has matured to the point where the latter is still invited to participate, despite its inability to contribute financially. The membership tally is expected to tick over the 15,000 mark for the first time come kick-off on Sunday, a record rise for a club that had never broken five figures.
Game-day attendances, if the faithful pack Leichhardt, will represent the biggest increase of any Sydney club in 2016. Those numbers have helped contribute to this one: the Tigers are poised to be $700,000 net better off this year than last.
“Everything we are doing here at Wests Tigers is about operating ethically and honestly with the sole aim of winning back the trust of our fans and making them feel proud to be a part of the Wests Tigers family,” chief executive Justin Pascoe said.
"For me, personally, especially coming from an AFL background, I couldn’t be happier with what we’ve been able to achieve this year.
“But we’re a long way from where I want it to be.”
Like every other club, the Tigers have a strategic plan. “United team, shared dream” is the mantra for the three-year road map that will take the club into 2017. However, these are more than just statements scribbled on a page.
“When I came to the business a year ago, I personally believed the business wasn’t mature enough or developed enough to look too far into the future,” Pascoe said.
Which is why the strategic plan was broken up into 67 items. The progress of each is monitored via a traffic light system: red shows that work on that item is yet to commence, amber that it is in progress and green signifies it has been completed. By the end of October, there will be a green light next to 51 of the key objectives.
“We’ve got a process of following through on the next stage of the business,” Pascoe said.
"We think this brand is enormous and the opportunity to be a power in the NRL is real. It will take continuous hard work and there’s a team behind the scenes willing to do that.
“The board has been very supportive and progressive.”
Those who committed to the journey at the club’s lowest ebb have enjoyed it the most. The Tigers were in need of a major sponsor after Harry Triguboff finally lost patience. Brydens Lawyers are sponsors or membership partners of five NSW-based NRL clubs but for its principal, Lee Hagipantelis, filling the void left by long-time backer Meriton was as much an emotional as financial investment.
“I’ve been a Tigers supporter all my life,” said Hagipantelis, who briefly flirted with the idea of buying a stake in the club.
"I’ve never made any sponsorship agreement or investment that I didn’t gain some personal level of return from. It’s not all about dollars and cents. For me to align my brand with the team that I follow is priceless.
“I’m extraordinarily happy with the performance of the team and the direction the club is going in.”
Some of the credit must go to Taylor. The former Magpies halfback inherited a salary cap mess that would make Parramatta’s “Gang of Five” wince. Regardless of where Farah plays next year, the Tigers will be paying a fair chunk of the NSW hooker’s salary. While the issue should have been managed better, you can’t argue with the results.
“He’s evolved as an individual and a coach,” Pascoe said of Taylor.
“That’s showing on the field. It’s a testament to him, it’s a testament to the playing group and all the coaching staff.”
Whether the Tigers achieve the most important goal set out in their strategic plan, making the top four by 2017, remains to be seen. That light is currently on amber. But there is an optimism now that wasn’t evident when officials were sweating on the Panthers beating the Knights a year ago.
“I can’t tell you the number of people who contact me on social media who think it is unbelievable how our team has transformed in a relatively short space of time,” said Tigers chair Marina Go.
"What they’ve seen is the enthusiasm, passion and heart that comes from a culture that has been transformed.
“The job isn’t done, but as a board, we are extremely pleased with where we find ourselves on the path of our strategic plan. It’s exciting for us.”