‘It burns’: Justin Pascoe breaks silence on Tigers exit

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Outgoing Wests Tigers chief executive Justin Pascoe insists he left the club’s front office “in order”, has no doubts Benji Marshall will be a career coach and admitted for the first time he understands why Ivan Cleary walked out on the club.

Pascoe, one of the longest-serving NRL club chief executives until leaving last week on the most tumultuous day in the Tigers’ history, has acknowledged no one has felt the frustrations of the club’s 12-year finals drought more than him.

In his first interview since resigning, Pascoe broke his silence on the Tigers’ back-to-back wooden spoons, a section of fans staging protests against him, the appointment of Marshall as a rookie head coach and the pursuit of Jarome Luai.

And he’s adamant the Tigers have never been better placed to launch a finals assault in 2024.

“For eight years I’ve felt the frustrations of the fans and our partners and there’s no one more bitterly disappointed than me,” Pascoe says. “It burns every time we lose a game.

“But the club is in a position that’s far better than it has ever been in my lifetime in regards to development and talent, rosters, coaches. The fans and partners who have stuck solid by the club for a long time should be really comfortable the club will have success.”

Eye of the storm … Justin Pascoe, Benji Marshall, Jarome Luai and Ivan ClearyCredit: Getty/Marija Ercegovac

The review

Last week, a long-running review instigated by the Tigers’ major shareholder, the Holman Barnes Group, recommended a broom be put through the club’s governance structure.

The entire board was dissolved with former NSW premier Barry O’Farrell appointed interim chairman and veteran administrator Shane Richardson brought in to replace Pascoe.

Former chairman Lee Hagipantelis, whose Brydens Lawyers is the club’s $1 million-a-year front of jersey sponsor, described the seismic changes as “an ill-conceived publicity stunt that backfired”. Pascoe was more measured in his thoughts.

“To have a review done in the right respectful manner, I was always going to be very supportive of that,” he says. “When the review came back, and [recommended] in the best interests of the club have the board and myself move on, I understood that and perfectly respected that.”

So vitriolic had the campaign been by a section of the Tigers’ supporter base towards Pascoe, they’d even taken to unfurling banners at games this year urging to “end the Pascoe fiasco”.

“I understand the frustration,” he says. “People are entitled to their own opinion.

“I don’t watch or look at social media or the TV shows. The only time I ever saw things was when my mates would send me through images or captions of people making fun of me. They thought it was hilarious.

“The only thing I will say, while it doesn’t affect me, my concern was more about the staff at the club and my family. It’s never nice. It’s passion. It’s sport. I get it. The passion the fans have, when the club is successful this year, they will turn it from disappointment to excitement.”

New Wests Tigers coach Benji Marshall.Credit: Nathan Perri

Benji Marshall

Of all the gambles the Tigers have taken in the search of better on-field fortunes, perhaps none are bigger than appointing Marshall as head coach, only two years after he retired from playing.

Pascoe was part of the decision to have Marshall transition into a head coach after working under Tim Sheens. It will happen a year earlier than expected.

Having worked with Jason Taylor, Cleary, Michael Maguire, Sheens and interims Andrew Webster and Brett Kimmorley, Pascoe has seen a revolving door of coaches in his eight years at the club.

But he’s adamant Marshall can be the longest serving of the lot.

“I have the upmost respect for Benji as a player,” Pascoe says. “He’s a generational player and superstar of the game.

“I’ve got zero questions on his ability [as a coach]. I think he will be outstanding for the club. He has a demonstrated a willingness to work and learn, and with the mentors he’s talking to and senior coaches around him, he’ll have an outstanding career and I wish him all the very best to do that.”

Three-time premiership-winning player Jarome Luai.Credit: Steven Siewert

Jarome Luai

He won’t be there to see the ink dry on the contract, but Pascoe drove negotiations for Luai to join the Tigers from 2025.

The three-time premiership winner is edging closer to signing a five-year deal worth more than $6 million to leave Penrith and take on arguably the biggest challenge in the NRL: lifting the Tigers out of the cellar.

Since Pascoe’s exit, the Tigers withdrew their offer to Addin Fonua-Blake and increased their package to Luai – and the former boss is convinced he can be the prized signing to help turn the club around.

“The conversations I’ve had with him, and the conversations Benji has had with him, he’s an absolute winner,” Pascoe says. “He’s one of those unique athletes that when he speaks a certain way, you’ve got to have confidence he’ll follow up and deliver.

“He’s had a decorated and outstanding career for a young man already, and I’ve got no concerns that won’t continue at the Wests Tigers or anywhere else. He’s a good family man, has strong values and a good character. He’ll be an asset to wherever he ends up.”

Ivan Cleary

It might have been the call which changed the fortunes of two clubs.

Since Cleary walked out on his contract with the Tigers at the end of 2018 to return to Penrith and coach son Nathan, the Panthers have created the greatest dynasty in the NRL era.

In his only full year in charge of the Tigers, Cleary steered the club to the brink of the finals in ninth. Since then, they’ve finished ninth, 11th, 13th before consecutive wooden spoons.

Pascoe was blindsided by Cleary’s move, which severely strained their friendship. But five years later, he understands why the coach dropped a bombshell on the Tigers.

“That was a huge period for us as a club,” Pascoe says. “I knew when we went and got Ivan, he could certainly coach. That’s been proven. I understand the reasons why he went and did it – and it’s certainly been justified.

“I only wish him the best now too.”

Concord or Campbelltown?

When Pascoe first arrived at the Tigers, he laughs when he says there were 60 strategic priorities which were on his agenda.

When he left last week, he argues there were only three: pouring as many resources as possible into the football programs (NRL, NRLW and pathways), creating an elite high performance environment and winning a competition.

“That’s by far been my biggest frustration,” he says.

“You hear a lot of people say winning comps starts with the front of house being in order. The front of house has been in order. We’ve put so many structures in place to support decision making around the football program. We’ve always supported the coach.

Alex Twal takes a stroll down the club’s walk of fame in the Tigers’ centre of excellence at Concord.Credit: Nick Moir

“The heavy lifting has almost been done. The roster is almost set for the next two years. The environment is set up to be elite, and the business is in good shape.”

Pascoe’s major legacy will be the club’s $84.5 million centre of excellence, which opened last year.

But should it have been built at Concord or Campbelltown?

Pascoe says an independent panel highlighted five potential sites for the state-of-the-art facility: Leichhardt, Liverpool, Concord, Campbelltown and Sydney Olympic Park. The assessment overwhelmingly identified Concord as having the most benefits.

“That facility has been an outstanding achievement,” Pascoe says. “The number of people that put in so many hours to make that a reality was incredible.”

‘An honour and privilege’

Pascoe leaves as the longest-serving chief executive in the joint venture’s history and one who is adamant the club can return to being a finals force.

“It’s really been a move from survival to thriving over the eight years, which I’m really proud of,” he says. “I’ve genuinely felt privileged to be afforded the opportunity to lead such a great club. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved and what we’ve collectively achieved at the club.

“The one thing fans and members should know is there is a really great bunch of hard-working staff that go well beyond what they’re paid to do because they love the club, and they’re wanting the club to be successful.

“That’s why clubs like this will always survive, because of people like that.”

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