The Wests Tigers have been told to “win the war” over star recruit Isaiah Papali’i as the club faces a “massive moment” in its history.
The Eels enforcer was seen as a major coup when he inked a three-year $1.9 million deal in November.
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But the 23-year-old is reportedly weighing up his future after the Tigers parted ways with premiership winning coach Michael Maguire.
It is the first major challenge for the Tigers new coaching group of Tim Sheens, Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah, one that could shape the immediate future of the embattled club.
Speaking on NRL360, the Daily Telegraph’s Phil Rothfield said it was vital that the club made sure Papali’i honored his lucrative contract.
“It’s no good the Wests Tigers having the new Sheens-Benji combination at the head of the club if they’re going to back down on something like this,” Rothfield said on Wednesday.
“It’s a crunch signing for them, as important as Api (Koroisau). They’ve got to stay strong.”
Papali’i was widely seen as one of the best new buys in the competition in 2021, as he was included in the Dally M Team of the Year after a stellar first season in blue and gold.
The talented forward played 25-games for the Eels last season, having scored seven tries, averaged 150 running meters per game, and made more than 800 tackles.
What’s more, his signature saw the Tigers part ways with the likes of Luke Garner and Luciano Leilua.
NRL 360 co-host Paul Kent said the saga surrounding Papali’i had seen the club reach a crossroads.
“It’s a massive moment in the club and the new future of the club, given the new appointment of the coaches,” he said.
Kent then questioned the re-signing of Brent Naden after the club announced this week he had inked an extension until the end of the 2025 season.
“If you’re going to go out and sell your club, Brent Naden is not the guy you’re going to go ‘look who we’ve just signed, come and play with us’,” Kent said.
“They’ve got to win the war of Papali’i first.”
Co-host Braith Anasta was also surprised by the Naden announcement and the club needed to identify what a Wests Tigers player represents.
“They’ve got the opportunity here, the Wests Tigers, and you see it with the Bulldogs at the moment, to start from the bottom up again,” Anasta said.
“They’ve got Sheens, they’ve got Marshall, great look, you want to attract players. You want to attract the right players from the start, set the tone.
“What sort of personality are you looking for? What sort of player do you want to be a Wests Tigers player? That’s what I’m talking about.”
The Australian’s Brent Read said the Naden announcement, at a time where there is uncertainty surrounding a host of big-name Tigers stars, was not what fans wanted to see.
“He’s a tell me a dozen,” he said on NRL360.
“You know what the Wests Tigers fans want to hear about? They want to hear about (Adam) Doueihi, they want to hear about (Daine) Laurie, they want to hear about (Jackson) Hastings, they want to hear about (Luke) Brooks,” Read said.
“That’s what they care about. Brent Naden they can give or take, due respect to Brent Naden, but they want to hear what’s going on with those four blokes.”
Rothfield, however, said the club was right to lock Naden down.
“I think you’re being really unfair on that young fella, I really do,” he said.
“I think he’s a handy player,” Rothfield said. “You don’t let players go alright and handy players, you don’t not sign them.”
The drama surrounding the Tigers roster is unlikely to begin and end with Papali’i.
Luke Brooks has repeatedly been linked with a move to Newcastle despite denying he wants out.
Fellow half Jackson Hastings’ future is also up in the air. The Sydney Morning Herald reported last month that Hastings, who has been playing lock, could be axed as part of a roster overhaul.
This report claimed there are people within the club who believe Hastings has had a negative influence on the playing group.
This week Rothfield then revealed another rumor surrounding Brooks which will do little to quell the feeling of uncertainty at Concord.
“There’s been all sorts of rumours,” he said.
“There was a strong one (Tuesday) that Luke Brooks was going to N and Frizell was coming to Wests Tigers as a swap. As an edge forward.
“Tim Sheens said it’s not happening but a lot of people saw it as insurance if Papali’i doesn’t come.”
Wests have also reportedly inquired about former Raiders second rower John Bateman, who is currently plying his trade back in England with Wigan.
The inquiry, as reported by Fox Sports’ James Hooper, is believed to be “unrelated to Isaiah Papali’i” and his contract drama.
“Tim’s got something going on cause I spoke to him this week, I asked him about Papali’i and he said ‘he’s coming and don’t worry there’s other stuff happening,” Read added.
“Edge backrower is an area that they need to address. He’d be a really handy one for them.”