Wests Tigers have just a handful of spots remaining in their 2021 roster but are poised to become one of the most active clubs in the transfer market after November 1 as only 11 players are signed beyond next season.
The imbalance in the Tigers roster and ongoing salary cap issues are the main reason that the club’s greatest player, Benji Marshall, is set to finish his career playing elsewhere next year after being told there was no room for him at Concord in 2021.
Besides Marshall and fellow Tigers stalwart Chris Lawrence, who is retiring at the end of the season, the club’s only other unsigned players are Elijah Taylor, Matt Eisenhuth, Robert Jennings, Oliver Clark, Sam McIntyre, Alex Seyfarth and Dylan Smith.
Tigers fans may find it difficult to understand how the club can let Marshall go when he is still averaging more try assists per game than any other player to have played more than six matches this season except Cronulla’s Shaun Johnson but coach Michael Maguire had few other options.
After leaving the Tigers at the end of the 2013 season for a brief stint in Super Rugby with the Auckland Blues, Marshall does not qualify for salary cap dispensation for veteran or developed players who have been a member of a club’s top 30 squad for eight years.
Instead, the $200,000 allowance is expected to be used by the Tigers next year to offset the contracts of halfback Luke Brooks and star winger David Nofoaluma in their salary cap.
Nofoaluma is off contract at the end of 2021, meaning rival clubs can approach him from November 1.
However, the allowance may help the Tigers to keep the NRL's leading try-scorer playing alongside Brooks, Adam Doueihi, Moses Mbye, Luke Garner, Alex Twal, Tommy Talau, Luciano Leilua and Asu Kepaoa.
Development players Reece Hoffman and Jake Simpkin are the other Tigers players contracted for longer than 12 months, along with rookie Parramatta forward Stefano Utoikamanu, who will join the club next season
Brooks, Doueihi, Kepaoa and Utoikamanu are the only Tigers players contracted for 2023.
Only Canterbury and Manly have less talent currently on their books beyond next season but, unless a player on a big-money deal decides to leave, the Tigers have little room to move in 2021 and a roster weighed down by play-making options.
None may have the match-winning ability of Marshall or be as popular with fans across the game but Brooks, Doueihi, Mbye, Talau, Josh Reynolds and Billy Walters can all play halfback or five-eighth and they were already contracted for 2021, whereas Marshall has been on year-by-year deals since 2017.
Cleary: Benji has a hell of a lot to give the game
If Marshall had been signed beyond this season, Tigers officials wouldn’t be planning his farewell alongside Lawrence at Bankwest Stadium on September 26 against Parramatta.
“You have got to have the right blend across your squad of people in certain positions,” Maguire explained.
“If you have too many front-rowers or too many back-rowers, or wherever it may be, it puts a stress on your salary cap to make up a team.”
Disappointing situation: Farah reacts to news of Benji's exit
Business trumps romance
Marshall isn’t the first big-name star to fall victim to salary cap constraints or other issues that led to their departure from a team they had given great service to.
Legendary NFL quarter-back Tom Brady made his debut for Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday after 19 seasons and six Super Bowl victories with the New England Patriots, while Lionel Messi played for Barcelona last weekend after the biggest soccer star on the planet abandoned plans to quit the Spanish club.
Marshall to Manly?
The most famous case in league was then Australian and Queensland captain Wally Lewis being squeezed out of the Brisbane Broncos in 1990 and finishing his career with Gold Coast Seagulls.
However, long-time Tigers fans haven’t forgotten the bitterness of Marshall’s previous departure from the club at the end of the 2013 season over a contract dispute.
After four years in the wilderness, at St George Illawarra and Brisbane, where he played for little more than a minimum wage contract, Marshall jumped at the opportunity to return to the club where he began his career in 2003 and helped to a premiership two years later.
His flick pass to Pat Richards in the 2005 grand final still features regularly in television highlights packages and former Tigers back-rower Liam Fulton used to joke to team-mates about the number of fans wearing his jersey whenever he deputised for Marshall in the No.6 role.
Now 35 years old, Marshall could still probably offset the cost of his contract in jersey sales for whichever club he joins next season.
An online petition was launched by fans to keep Marshall at the Tigers after he inspired a comeback from 20-0 down to lose 26-24 against South Sydney last Thursday night in a performance featuring two try assists and three line-break assists.
Play-making great Johnathan Thurston told Channel 9: “I can’t believe he is not signed for another year. I was marvelling at what Benji was doing this evening. There are three or four clubs who could certainly do with his services.”
Organisers of the petition were on track to reach their target of 10,000 signatures on Monday but Melbourne great Cameron Smith is one of the few players who get to decide how their careers end, as hard-nosed business decisions usually trump romantic storylines.
No room at Rabbitohs for Benji
Interest but no offers
At this stage, Marshall intends to continue playing next season and his form with the Tigers is the best advertisement for his manager Matt Desira to convince rival clubs that he still has something to offer.
It is understood that Desira has received interest from NRL and Super League clubs but no firm offers yet for Marshall, who wants to focus on the next two weeks with the Tigers before making a decision about his future.
The Broncos, Bulldogs, Sea Eagles and Knights would appear the obvious clubs with interest in a playmaker of the calibre and experience of Marshall, while he may also be of appeal to the Cowboys, whose incoming coach, Todd Payten, is a former Wests Tigers team-mate.
He's cut the head off the leader: Farah reacts to Benji axing
Kiwis team-mate Kieran Foran would be a target for the same clubs after Canterbury decided not to offer him a new contract next season and the decision to maintain 30-man playing squads next season should help them both find a new team in 2021.
Maguire, who is also the New Zealand coach, hopes to work again with Marshall in an off-field capacity, either for Wests Tigers or the Kiwis.
However, before then he wants to ensure that Marshall leaves the Tigers on the best possible note and club officials began planning farewell celebrations on Monday for the superstar playmaker and Lawrence.
Initially, the Tigers had hoped to move their round 20 match against the Eels to Leichhardt Oval or Campbelltown Stadium, where Marshall debuted as a 17-year-old schoolboy against Newcastle in 2003, but bio-security issues put paid to those plans.
“It would have been nice to have been able to do that but we are definitely going to pay all the right respects to two great players of the club,” Maguire said.
However, COVID-19 restrictions will impact on the celebrations as crowd numbers will be limited at Bankwest Stadium and Marshall will not be afforded a send-off like the emotional farewell Wayne Pearce enjoyed in 1990 at Leichhardt Oval.
There are also concerns that a post-match presentation for Marshall and Lawrence on the field or a lap of honour by the pair at Bankwest Stadium would encourage fans to congregate together after the game.
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.