On the surface things appear on the up at Wests Tigers after five straight seasons in the finals wilderness. With some of the brightest young stars in the game, and finishing just 1 point out of the finals series, the Club finally appears to be getting its act together after years of poor salary cap management, poor on-field performances and off-field turmoil. However, despite the recent upswing, the Tigers face an off-season of real uncertainty with their four biggest stars and head coach all off contract at the end of 2017.
The Tigers have not quite managed to avoid the bad press this off-season with Mark O'Neill unceremoniously resigning as General Manager of Football. O'Neill was stood down by the club indefinitely for allegations of misconduct and rumours of inappropriate behaviour. With the Tigers' four biggest stars in James Tedesco, Mitchell Moses, Luke Brooks and Aaron Woods all off contract at the end of 2017, O'Neill's exit could hardly come at a worse time for the club. Head Coach Jason Taylor is also off contract at the end of 2017, and having already had to survive several bumpy periods to keep his job, remains a man firmly under pressure to deliver results. To have your Head Coach and four top players all coming off contract at the same time is either extremely bad luck, or extremely bad management, or perhaps a touch of both for Wests.
With several cashed up clubs like the Roosters, Bulldogs and Souths circling after poor seasons, the Tigers local talent is in very real danger of being poached from right under their noses. Mark O'Neill's main role when appointed was to look after retention and to ensure the Tigers kept their talent. The Tigers are not a club that can recruit high profile players, so they need to nurture and keep their emerging stars. However, with his dumping, it leaves CEO Justin Pascoe under pressure to pick up the slack and get to work. All four players are likely to command top dollars and big increases in their salaries, as well as seek assurances about who'll be the Head Coach in 2018. Uncertainty surrounding Jason Taylor's future is far from ideal and Pascoe will have to have a good reading on the relationship between Taylor and Tedesco, Moses, Brooks and Club Captain Woods.
Taylor did a decent job under pressure last season, as the Tigers recovered from 2-6 a third of the way through the season, to win 9 of their last 16 games to finish on the brink of the finals. Moses and Tedesco elevated their games to another level. With Moses, Brooks and Woods all managed by Isaac Moses, and James Tedesco deciding between George Mimis and Moses as to who will manage him going forward, the Tigers are in a very difficult spot. Isaac Moses' job will be to get the best deal for his clients and is that realistically possible if they all remain at the Tigers? The Roosters have long courted Tedesco and rumours swirled of their interest in Moses last season. The Bulldogs are currently well short of star quality in the halves. While Woods is one of the NRL's best Club players up front with his ability to churn through metres and rack up big numbers.
The bottom line is the Tigers desperately need to start next season well if their four players' futures remain in limbo. Ideally they would like to have all four players locked away in the off-season, however that appears very unlikely with the players' managers very likely to ensure the four test their market worth during the season. If results start to go south and pressure on Taylor mounts, one or disastrously more may see a brighter and more richly rewarded future elsewhere.
As a Tigers' fan I believe they can simply ill afford to lose key position players in Tedesco and Moses, and Club Captain Woods. Luke Brooks is the one player that has not quite stepped up, and whilst I think he will become a very good NRL player, if one player is squeezed out I would rather it be Brooks than the other three. As for Taylor, i remained unconvinced about his qualities to take this team to the next level however he did a decent job this year. If I were Justin Pascoe I would by trying to gauge how the vibe is between these 4 players and the coach, and if some have their doubts, it might be bad news for Taylor.