Devoted fans of the US version of The Office will remember the season six story arc when Jim Halpert is promoted to co-manager of Dunder Mifflin paper company’s beleaguered Scranton enterprise.
For those not familiar with the series, it’s a dud idea from the outset with neither employee sure of whether they’re the boss or not.
A similar comedy of errors has played out more often than not at the Wests Tigers and St George Illawarra Dragons over the past couple of decades.
At least they’ve survived. North Sydney Bears fans are still scratching their heads over the failed Northern Eagles mess they were forced into with Manly which only lasted three years before the Sea Eagles cut their strange bedfellows adrift.
Put simply, joint ventures are a compromise that don’t work in rugby league or at the very least, make it hard for that club to compete with united rivals.
On paper, Dunder Mifflin or otherwise, combining the resources of two clubs into one should give that merged team an advantage.
In reality, it just exacerbates the factional politics inherent in most NRL clubs.
If success really does start at the front office, it’s almost impossible to achieve it when it has built-in divisions.
Each of the NRL’s two joint ventures have won a premiership but a strike rate of a title every quarter of a century is not only below average but well under expectations.
They are placed 16th and 17th heading into Round 12, a full two wins worse than the Bulldogs and Eels on the rung above them on the ladder.
Wests Tigers have qualified for the finals just three times in 23 attempts, including their 2005 premiership triumph, while St George Illawarra have racked up a solitary playoff win (five years ago) since Wayne Bennett coached them to Grand Final glory in 2010.
The Tigers, after collecting last season’s wooden spoon, have yet again been rocked by infighting with incidents like Wests football club chairman Shannon Cavanagh being told to front a disciplinary hearing earlier this season after criticising joint venture chair Lee Hagipantelis and CEO Justin Pascoe in front of sponsors.
And then there was the recent signing of Scott Fulton to become the club’s recruitment boss, which was done without the knowledge of coach Tim Sheens and the person he’d previously appointed to the role, Warren McDonnell, whose remit has been reduced to looking after pathways rather than the NRL roster.
Incidents like these underlines the ongoing volatility in the uneasy relationship between the Magpies and Balmain diehards.
Wests Tigers at least now have a permanent home base at Concord following the opening of their long-awaited Centre of Excellence late last year but continue to be the NRL’s game-day nomads.
No less than seven venues will be used for their 12 home games in 2023 – three matches apiece for Leichhardt Oval and Campbelltown, two at CommBank Stadium, another at Accor Stadium, the Magic Round meeting with the Dragons, a clash with the Rabbitohs in Tamworth and a Warriors sojourn in Waikato.
Meanwhile, over at Kogarah/Wollongong, the Dragons have been an ongoing source for off-field content for several years and even after a summer of discontent of truly epic proportions, they were somehow confident of proving the doubters wrong.
The doubters were not wrong.
All the dramas of the off-season – too many to list, ranging from training scuffles to criminal matters – turned out to be a precursor for a lacklustre campaign leading up to coach Anthony Griffin’s sacking on Tuesday.
As has been the case since they formed in 1999 when the Saints and the Steelers created history by becoming the NRL’s first joint venture, club officials are at pains to say they are now one single entity, not two factions.
The St George faction had the money, Illawarra provided the fertile junior nursery and it wasn’t until WIN Corporation increased its stake in the Illawarra club five years ago from 25 per cent to full ownership that the Steelers have had the financial clout that they lacked in the first two decades of the merger.
One bone of contention from when the arranged marriage was consummated has always been whether the coach is from one side of the other – from David Waite, Nathan Brown and Steve Price being from the St George side or when Andrew Farrar and Paul McGregor were in charge and seen as Steelers products.
The only times that wasn’t an issue was when “outsiders” have been at the helm – when Wayne Bennett led them to premiership success in his 2009-11 stint and Griffin’s tenure over the past three years when greater concerns were higher on the agenda than such perceptions.
At least with Jason Ryles, Ben Hornby and Dean Young in the mix to be the next coach, they are all young enough to have only had the St George Illawarra logo above their heart when they played for the club.
Back at the Tigers and Western Suburbs now have the whip hand when it comes to controlling the purse strings after Balmain’s finances have gone south to the point where they now have just a 10% stake in the combined entity.
It’s not right to blame their ongoing lack of success – owning the NRL’s longest playoff drought at 12 years and counting – entirely on the factionalism within.
Some of the head-scratching decisions can simply be put down to poor management rather than anything to do with the club’s complicated structure.
Hagipantelis recently defended the decision not to inform Sheens about the significant appointment of Fulton by claiming commercial sensitivity was required because of his previous employment with Manly and they were “very respectful of that”.
This may be so but it was disrespectful to Sheens, the only coach who has delivered a premiership to this franchise, and had been entrusted with the task of overseeing this most recent rebuild as football manager and now coach before handing over to understudy Benji Marshall in 2025.
Now that Griffin is off the “which coach will be punted next” sweepstakes, Sheens is rising up the leaderboard – it will surprise many if he sees out the existing arrangement until the end of next season.
It would be very on brand for the Tigers to force Sheens out and throw a club legend like Marshall to the wolves before he is ready for the rigours of being a head coach.
Sheens knows how rugby league clubs operate amid a constant stench of backroom politics – he made his debut as a Penrith forward half a century ago, before many of the parents of his current team were even born and has pretty much seen it all in both the NRL and Super League as a coach.
Despite a terrible start to the season when the Tigers lost seven on the trot, he was adamant their fortunes would turn around even when the defeats kept piling up and he’s been vindicated somewhat over the past three weeks with an upset over premiers Penrith, a win over the Dragons and a gallant performance in going down to Souths suggesting the team is headed in the right direction.
After St George Illawarra’s dramatic win over the Roosters on Friday night, the Tigers need to keep pace with their joint-venture cousins by beating the Cowboys on Saturday night at Leichhardt Oval.
And while they have finally attracted a few high-profile recruits this year in the form of Api Koroisau, David Klemmer, Isaiah Papalii and John Bateman, they won’t be adding Shaun Johnson to that list with the Warriors halfback set to remain in Auckland if he plays on next year.
They had been linked to young English playmaker Lewis Dodd to solve their halfback woes but his St Helens chief executive, Mike Rush, reportedly warned him off joining a team like the Wests Tigers.
There’s still a stigma about the club when it comes to free agents which won’t go away overnight.
It all adds up to besieged half Luke Brooks potentially staying next season after his current multimillion-dollar long-term deal expires.
Everyone outside Concord is screaming “no, don’t do it” to both parties – Brooks looks like he needs a new home to escape the baggage he carries at the Tigers while the club could do with a change rather than basing their attack around a player who has had limited success in the role for a decade.
Sheens said at his captain’s run media conference on Friday that the 28-year-old, who will play his 200th NRL match on his home ground against North Queensland, was well and truly in the mix for a new deal, particularly with regular halves partner Adam Doueihi likely to miss most of next season due to his ACL tear.
He signed Brooks as a teenager during his first stint as coach more than a decade ago with a plan to build the team around three other young prospects, James Tedesco, Aaron Woods and Mitchell Moses, who ended up departing a few years later.
“He and Mitchell were the two halves, we signed them both. They were going to be our spine, obviously it didn’t happen with Mitch. Tedesco, he was in that mix as well, Woodsy. They were the four young kids that I signed and that was part of the future of the club,” he lamented.
“It didn’t happen. Lots of things happened. Coaches (including himself) came and went, CEOs came and went and players came and went. All I’m worried about is what we’re doing now.”
Sheens is thrilled Brooks has been able to silence a few of his critics, at least momentarily, with his recent form.
“He’s had his big moments and he’s playing good footy at the moment,” Sheens said.
“We will definitely be making him an offer, it just comes down to how much that offer is and how other people are thinking and what he’s thinking. That’s going to happen in the next week and a half. In the bye we will sort that out.
“I’ve always had my eye on keeping Brooksy. I don’t care what external people said. Most people haven’t got a clue. I’m keen to keep him happy and keep him here.”