It all started with a quote from new Wests head coach Ivan Cleary, in the midst of the “big four” scandal, about his players having to be “on the bus” – wanting them to put their belief in himself and the club, as hard as they’ve made that lately.
However, the throwaway metaphor that Cleary used has inspired a movement at Concord Oval. Over the past months, the “on the bus” slogan has been trumpeted by the fans, brought on by the club, and embraced by all Tigers.
Have Wests Tigers attempted to profit from this catch cry in the midst of a year where their place in the competition has once again come into question? You bet they have.
We’ve seen memberships, shirts, hoodies, and even a cardboard cutout of a bus at home games, in which supporters can take a photo. Fair play to Wests. It’s good to see such a tortured fan base given something to rally around.
Since the bus started making its routes, 11 players have jumped aboard, whilst six have found their stop, and gotten off. In this article, we’ll take a look into some of the bigger names arriving in the Inner West next year.
With the loss of three of the big four, is there any chance next year’s Wests Tigers outfit can be better than this year’s? Are any of their signings actually any good?
One of the Melbourne Storm’s first ever born and bred local players, Mahe Fonua spent 50 so-so games playing for his hometown team before taking off for greater opportunity in England.
The three-quarter’s strike rate has been far more impressive for Hull FC than it was for Melbourne and just looking at the guy you see a far trimmer, more athletic man than you saw at the Storm.
This is a bit of a wildcard signing. He should definitely be in the running for a spot in the first xiii, but whether he’s actually gotten better as a player since his previous NRL days is unknown. Not bad.
Has a lot of fans around the League because he’s fast and has neat footwork. Once you’ve won those fanboys, it’s hard to lose them, even with all the red flags that have gone up for Lolohea.
We keep hearing about this young man’s talent, which he undoubtedly has, but we also heard plenty of his positional argument with former HC Stephen Kearney, who saw him as more of a winger as opposed to a half/fullback.
We also saw him dropped to reserve grade, for a matter that was “for myself and Tui,” according to Kearney. I can’t see how that can be anything but bad news.
Has performed decently for the Tigers thus far in the opportunities he’s received, but unsure where he fits into the club next year.
On the surface, this looks like a brilliant signing. Former New Zealand international, in the prime of his career, looking to return to his best form.
However, Matulino is another who has raised numerous red flags throughout his career for his extracurricular activities.
He was late to a team meeting following an away match after a drinking session and has frequently come into question for his attitude. That he is now on Wests’ books until the end of 2020 is concerning, if not odd.
Perhaps rejigging his career away from poor influences in Auckland will do him good. Or perhaps he will fair as well as the Tigers’ last big name Kiwi forward signing, Adam Blair.
May genuinely be the best signing Wests have made thus far this season, locking McQueen away for the next three years at a very reasonable $400,000 rate.
McQueen will turn 30 in August, making him 33 at the end of his Tigers deal, but the well-illustrated England international is as consistent as they come.
Having shown good veteran leadership in recent seasons, and possessing the ability to slide out to the backline when asked of him, McQueen will likely join Chris Lawrence in an experienced Wests second row. Good business.
The early reviews for Taane Milne are good, and whilst I’m not as high on him as many others seem to be, I’ve seen enough to be prepared to give him a shot.
Milne was a regular with the St. George Illawarra Dragons last season, but after Tim Lafai re-found his form this season, he has been consigned to second grade.
Realistically, the signing of any 22-year-old is probably a good one. Milne is a big boy and possesses footwork and speed. He gives the Tigers another option in the centres, and at only two years, is relatively low risk.
Another St George player on his way up to Leichhardt Oval, Russell Packer is a brilliant redemption story that could fit in quite poetically at Wests.
Packer has impressed in his return to the League and has been rewarded with a $1 million contract over four years – again, good business from the Tigers.
Packer shares a special bond with Ivan Cleary, as he was the man who handed him his debut as an 18-year-old, all the way back in 2008.
It must’ve been hard for Packer to leave Dragons, given they revived his career, but this one-time felon is a changed man, and hopefully, will contribute to the building of a strong culture at his new club in 2018.
This is an interesting one, which people are either loving or hating, and it’s going to require more than a few stanzas to expand on. Watch this space.
Reynolds bled Bulldogs. He epitomised them. The grit and grind, the “run through a brick wall” attitude, the slight undertones of grubbiness that everyone hated. Reynolds was everything that a Dog of War could be.
However, after poor form, and a perceived inability to generate offence, or combine with Moses Mbye, his position came under scrutiny. When his club signed Kieran Foran for 2018 onwards, the writing was on the wall.
Then Wests blew the Dogs’ offer out of the water – $3 million over four years, making Reynolds a Tiger until he’s 32 when he will be earning $750,000 a year.
Reynolds has been to two Grand Finals. He’s played some fabulous football in his time. His commitment has never come into question.
He’s won a State of Origin series, something no New South Wales five-eighth had been able to do for almost a decade.
But his skillset and struggles this year just don’t seem to scream “3 million dollar man”.
Reynolds will bring a lot to Wests. But what scares me most is how similar Luke Brooks, his future halves partner, is to Mbye. If he’s indeed too similar, the Tigers have a 3 million dollar mistake on their hands.
Overall, this looks like a rather opportunistic, ad-hoc way of building a club. Certainly not the worst way to build, but the Wests seem to have done so in its’ purest sense, without any real rhyme or agenda.
Whilst the meat of a good club is there, with parts of good talent in the forwards and backs, the spine is still a major question – one I think will be answered pretty quickly come 2018.
Josh Reynolds and Luke Brooks will need to combine better than they did with their previous partners. The club still needs to find a hooker.
Connor Watson, whilst talented, is largely untried at fullback and hasn’t even signed on the dotted line yet.
Quite frankly, although the talent is there, at this stage, I don’t see any scope for the Tigers to be jumping anywhere close to the finals next season, even with Ivan Cleary’s tutelage.
The bus is certainly going fast, but where it’s going is anyone’s guess.