‘It’s not just Souths’: How Tigers plan to become club of choice for Indigenous talent
By Adrian Proszenko
March 26, 2021 — 11.30am
If Wests Tigers are inclined to make a fresh pitch to Latrell Mitchell, or the next Latrell Mitchell for that matter, it would be very different to their original one.
South Sydney has long been considered the destination club for Indigenous talent, a point not lost on Michael Maguire during his stint at Redfern. Now that he’s at Wests Tigers, the premiership-winning coach has taken steps to make the joint-venture outfit an attractive alternative.
“I’ve worked a lot in that space through Souths and the best thing I learnt about Indigenous people is they are very tight family-wise,” Maguire said.
“So to attract people to your club you have to be able to make them feel welcome.
“How do you make them feel welcome? You bring in their own people.”
To that end, the Tigers have made several key staffing appointments. Ron Griffiths is now a coaching consultant, Timana Tahu has a coaching and mentoring role and long-time referee Gavin Badger officiates opposed sessions.
Their presence has already been a magnet for talent. In the space of just four months, eight Indigenous players have joined the club; James Roberts and Daine Laurie were added to the top squad, there’s train-and-trialists Tyronne Roberts-Davis, Allan Fitzgibbon and Kiah Cooper, as well as Jersey Flegg trio Matt Smith, Floyd Tighe and Brandon Tumeth.
Much has changed since Maguire and Roberts first worked together. When both were at Souths, Maguire handed ‘The Jet’ his NRL debut - and then his marching orders shortly afterwards.
“I’m a lot different to what I was back in the day,” Roberts grinned.
“I was a bit loose, just a kid really. I was a bit wild.”
‘Everyone thinks that Souths is the only one, but we’re creating that here.’
Maguire has stayed in touch over the years. Around the time the former NSW speedster was earning Dally M centre of the year honours at the Titans, Maguire tried to lure him back to the Rabbitohs.
“Probably nobody knows this, but I actually tried to get him when he went up north,” Maguire said.
“I kept in touch with Jimmy and his headspace at the time. He ended up going to Brisbane, it was about five or six years ago.
“You stay in touch with your players.
“What he had to deal with when he was a young fella, I understood his environment and it wasn’t conducive to him being the best he could be.
“That was my concern and that’s why we made the decisions we did at that time. It’s really great to see when one of your players, who has been through a whole heap of things as a young bloke, come back, can sit in that seat and talk about the things we’re talking about now.
“We’re talking about mentorship, leadership, watching him get to the younger kids who are in awe of the things he’s talking about.
“He’s got the experience and the ability. To me, that’s the proud thing as a coach; when you have a player like that.”
The Tigers will travel to Newcastle on Sunday. If all goes to plan, they will return with more than just two competition points. The club has partnered with Awabakal, an Aboriginal, community-controlled health service based in the region that provides pathways for Indigenous athletes to reach their goals.
That relationship, in addition to the existing partnership with the KARI organisation, will provide a pathway for promising talent to fast-track their development into the Tigers system.
“My vision is that I want to be able to create opportunities for the Indigenous people,” Maguire said. “Where that is in the club, doesn’t matter.
“It might be as the coach or the CEO one day.”
When Roberts’ second stint at South Sydney ended, after being released on compassionate grounds, his career could have as well. The lockdown period had been difficult for the 28-year-old and he considered a life without the pressures of professional football.
However, the Tigers made a compelling case to return. There was the presence of former dual international Tahu, Roberts’ favourite player growing up. But that was just part of it.
“Once Ron and ‘T’ [Tahu] were on board I felt more comfortable about the club to be honest, I was a lot more keen to come on board,” Roberts said.
“The connection with Awabakal here is a great opportunity for change at the club. I can engage in the community and change young kids’ lives as well.
“I can give them goals to get a new career out of, whether it’s footy or outside of footy.
“It’s been good. There’s a lot of young Indigenous boys I can help mentor, try to help them with their game or make sure they’re right outside of footy.
“I’m comfortable talking about my past experiences. If they can take anything out of mistakes or achievements, that’s what I want to do.
“It’s about creating that good vibe from the outside perspective. It’s a welcome club for Indigenous players.
“Everyone thinks that Souths is the only one, but we’re creating that here.”
Griffiths’ presence is a game changer. He is well respected in Newcastle, one of the catchment areas the Tigers have targeted, and helped the club get the nod when Awabakal was looking to partner with an NRL team.
“One thing we always knew was that sport, and rugby league in particular, was a great conduit for our people,” Griffiths said.
“People will see the benefits of what we’re doing now, generational change, in 10 or 20 years’ time. This will change the landscape of rugby league and the way things are done in the Aboriginal community, I believe.”
To lure the best players, money alone isn’t enough. If that was the case, Mitchell would have joined the Tigers after departing from Bondi Junction. Their challenge is to convince prospective players that their finals drought, stretching all the way back to 2011, is about to be broken.
Now they have another selling point when they go to market for top Indigenous talent.
“With the Tigers and Madge, they are creating an environment where Indigenous people want to come,” said premiership-winning centre Tahu, who is sharing the knowledge he garnered during his illustrious career with Tigers players.
“I feel comfortable walking into the Tigers every day. I look forward to coming in. In the past, there were teams where I was cringing.
“This is the only club I’ve been in for a long time where you go ‘this is an awesome environment’.
“Everyone is comfortable, everyone is on the same page.
“It’s good for [players] to see senior coaches like Ron and myself, you can see the connection we have with the boys, in extras as well.
“Especially in our community, it’s all about relationships.
“I feel like this is going be a long one, as long as Madge is at the Tigers.”
Brandon Webster-Mansfield is a Magpies’ junior in the U20s. This is a good article worth reading which I came across.