In an incredible twist to the fairytale homecoming that is Benji Marshall’s return to the Wests Tigers, the veteran playmaker has been named as one of five co-captains selected by coach Ivan Cleary.
Cleary struggled to find the adequate terminology to describe how the shared leadership system would work, but essentially he will tinker with tradition as he looks to get the best out of a group of players now handed the task of setting a culture at a club looking for positive influence.
NRL.com can reveal Marshall is one of three off-season recruits who have done enough to convince Cleary they are worthy of the leadership role at the club, with former Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs five-eighth Josh Reynolds and ex-St George Illawarra Dragons prop Russell Packer among the five-man group.
Wests Tigers stalwart Chris Lawrence and Kiwi lock Elijah Taylor, the two candidates most assumed would battle it out for the sole skipper responsibility, are also part of the captaincy circle chosen by Cleary.
“I just think it’s the right model for us right now,” Cleary told NRL.com.
“When we started this pre-season it was pretty obvious straight away that there was no real pecking order. There was no set culture to adhere to. It was all new.
“That was what I wanted it to be like and that’s just how it panned out. In the absence of leadership, we didn’t have a captain so it was always going to be interesting to see where the leadership came from.”
There are more questions than answers in relation to the shared captaincy set-up now in place at the Tigers, but that’s how Cleary likes it.
He wants the players to take ownership in the rebranding of the club, and is willing to let them all share in that journey.
The members of the Tigers captaincy group will rotate the key duties from week to week in the Telstra Premiership. They will share the honour of leading the team out on to the paddock, attending post-match press conferences and juggling all the off-field responsibilities associated with the role.
What hasn’t been decided is who will be tasked with the responsibility of talking to the referees.
Cleary isn’t certain on how it will all work on the field, but is happy for nature to take its course.
He came into the pre-season open to all candidates as potential captains, however it quickly became clear there wouldn’t be a standout option.
“Leadership is very important,” Cleary said.
“It’s hard to function without it. You’ve got to have it. With this particular team at this time I think it’s going to work best to spread that role and allow those blokes to develop in their own way. If one guy ends up becoming the captain through osmosis, then great. If they don’t it’s OK too.”
Marshall is the player with the most leadership qualities, however the Tigers couldn’t select him as the sole captain given the uncertainty around where and how much he will play.
While Marshall’s selection is another chapter in what could potentially be the feelgood story of the year, the rise and maturity of Packer and Reynolds speaks volumes about their character.
Reynolds will be the heartbeat of Cleary’s team, and his energy has had a notable impact at Wests Tigers training in his first season away from Belmore.
Packer continues to impress on his road to redemption, providing a steel and toughness that will be essential in the Tigers’ quest to play finals football in 2018.
Taylor is inspirational in his actions and Lawrence is a Tiger through and through – arguably the obvious captain in the group given his history and status at the club.
But Cleary believes the characteristics and strengths of each member of his leadership entourage is what the Tigers need at this point of their development as a football team.
“They’re all pretty different,” Cleary admitted.
“They have different strengths and are at different levels, not just with their playing careers but their leadership development. I think those guys will function well together. There’ll be a nice real flow through the team and the squad rather than this real hierarchy. It was just natural. There was no pecking order.
“An NRL captain these days has a lot of stuff to do. There’s enough stories around where it effects guys negatively. There’s the extra burden and off field stuff, which is where we are at as a sport because every club is competing for corporate dollars. The captain has to be the face of the club and do this, that and the other. I think initially, sharing all those duties won’t hurt.”
Cleary did his homework on the shared leadership roles he has bestowed on his players, taking particular note of what the Melbourne Storm did with Cameron Smith.
“I did some research and it has been done before,” Cleary said.
“They did it down in Melbourne a few years ago and Cameron Smith came out of a similar system as the pick of that lot and went on to be the sole captain the year after. Michael Maguire did it Wigan when he went over there as well. I found it interesting when they did it but it’s not something I thought about doing until this year.
“I feel like with a new team, I actually want to encourage leadership on many fronts right across the board. If one captain ends up sticking his head up out of the pack, then I might go that way too. But for now, that’s what we’re going with.”