The Wests Tigers were at their best when Benji Marshall was the one calling the shots last season according to Isaiah Papali’i, which gives him confidence the club will take a leap in 2024.
With three games remaining last season the club announced Marshall would take over from Tim Sheens as head coach at the conclusion of the campaign, a year earlier than initially planned, with the premiership winner effectively assuming control of the team from that point.
Papali’i said it was at that stage that the side played some of their best football, which included picking up one of their four wins of the season by way of a 24-23 victory over the Dolphins.
That alone gives the 25-year-old Kiwi international reason to believe the future looks much brighter for the club who head into 2024 with back-to-back wooden spoons next to their name.
“We had Benji in the back end of our season and I think that’s where we were our most consistent,” Papali’i told pan66.com.
We had a patch there [earlier in 2023] where we were playing pretty well and we got our first win of the season, but a lot of that was, to be honest, on the back of Benji’s game plan and how simple he made it for us.Isaiah Papali'i
“Although we weren’t winning [all of that time], you just get that feeling where you feel like you are in the game a bit more and the way we were playing was our type of footy.
“Having Benji at the helm is going to be good, where we are getting a constant message or a constant game plan that is going to be simple for the whole 27 rounds.”
Poor on-field performances, coupled with speculation around the future of Sheens as head coach, ensured the club was under a constant spotlight in 2023, which Papali’i, who just a year earlier had played in grand final with the Eels, admitted made it hard to focus at times.
“All the external noise, as much as you want to block it out, it is a distraction,” he said.
“I think a lot of the boys dealt with it differently and even though it didn’t impact me massively, I think it’s just that little thing in the back of your head.
“Time will tell if that carries on, but I am pretty happy that we have got next season to look forward to because that season was pretty hard.”
Benji Marshall reacts to 2024 Draw
Meanwhile Papali’i said the major positive from the 2023 campaign was the number of players the club was able to blood and develop.
The likes of Fonua Pole and Junior Tupou enjoyed strong second seasons in the top grade in '23, while fullback Jahream Bula announced himself as a genuine star of the future with a rookie campaign that included five tries and seven try assists in 18 games.
“That was a very young team we had out there. I remember being young and each week, you don’t understand at the time, but all those experiences, either good or bad, only make you a better player," Papali'i said.
NRL try time: Jahream Bula
“I think they will look back on the season and understand and take confidence from that. They held their own for a big part of that season and we really did need them every week and they really did well.
“I am looking forward to them putting in a big pre-season and taking all the positives out of that 2023 year.”