By Rikki-Lee Arnold / QRL Statewide content producer
The Brisbane Tigers want nothing more than to break their 32-year Cup title drought.
They know to do so, they first need to set a solid foundation.
The Tigers’ Hostplus Cup squad is going through a period of change this year, after coach Jon Buchanan and skipper Darren Nicholls both retired at the end of season 2022.
There has also been an overhaul in the playing roster, with Bessie Aufaga-Toomaga (Western Clydesdales), Brett Greinke (Ipswich Jets), William Samuel, Darius Farmer and Tony Pellow (Wynnum Manly) among those who have moved on, while PNG international Daniel Russell has earned an NRL train-and-trial with the St George Illawarra Dragons.
For new coach Matt Church, who has spent the past three years at the helm of the PNG Hunters, he now sees an opportunity to not only build on the proud history of the club, but to establish a fresh, player-led culture.
With a number of new faces among the squad, Church said the priority for him coming into the Tigers was not just to find or re-sign good players, but good people as well.
“I’m happy with the playing group we’ve been able to assemble,” Church said.
“We know they can play rugby league but they’re even more impressive human beings. Establishing the right culture, for me, it’s really important.
“We want to have a culture where everyone feels like they belong. You can get some ego at times in certain organisations, but we want to have a team-first mentality.
“If you ask any coach at this time of year, of course they want to win a premiership. We’re no different to anyone else. But you can’t do that without good people in your organisation.
“That’s what we’re trying to encourage and support and highlight to all our group.”
The Tigers have made a number of big-name signings for 2023, including former NRL forward Leivaha Pulu, Tigers junior and former Melbourne and Gold Coast half Ryley Jacks, and Easts Mt Gravatt junior and NRL veteran Corey Thompson.
As the club celebrate their 90th anniversary this year, Church said at the start of pre-season he assembled a leadership group to help set the cultural standard, with a focus on “acknowledging the past and building better standards and values”.
Jacks, Thompson, Pulu and senior forward Bennett Leslie make up that group, with more players to be elevated during the final weeks of pre-season.
Church said they’d already established a mantra – “Find a way” – and the group were demonstrating that at training.
“We all want a strong pre-season and they’ve been the ones driving that out on the field,” Church said.
“Whenever they’re in uncomfortable situations, they’re getting in a group and reminding everyone of why we’re here and what we’re doing.
“We want to be a team that’s resilient and face up to any obstacle that comes up.”
And it’s not just on the field where this new-look leadership group is thriving, but off the field as well.
Not long after Church started to promote the player-led cultural standards, former Gold Coast Titans and New Zealand Warriors forward Pulu approached him with the desire to give back to the community ahead of Christmas.
Pulu said he had watched in recent years as his kids and his mother – who tragically lost her battle with cancer last February – spent time in hospital during the festive season and he knew how difficult that period could be for some.
So, with that in mind, the 32-year-old approached Church with the hope of doing visits to the Queensland Children’s Hospital.
“It was just a suggestion with the platform that we have, whether we could do something as a team, maybe go visit cancer patients or kids in hospital,” Pulu said.
“It was through that tough time of Christmas and the festive season, where everyone would rather be at home. It was something little but it could give them their moment, a little bit of joy, while they are in hospital.
“Churchie was straight onto it. He took the reins and made it happen.”
While COVID-19 restrictions meant the players and Tigers staff couldn’t visit the hospital, they quickly found other ways to provide some joy.
Pulu and Church said players started donating from their own pockets, not just from the Cup side, but across all levels at the club.
CEO Brian Torpy then matched the amount raised and the Tigers ended up donating $3200 to the hospital alongside toys and games for the children.
Pulu – who won back-to-back premierships with Norths in 2021 and 2022 – said it was a reminder for the Tigers players about the importance of giving back.
“Every club has their own way of showing support,” Pulu said.
“It was just an idea that I gave towards to Churchie and he actioned it.
“If it wasn’t for him actioning, I don’t know if it would have gone that far. For us as footy players, sometimes it’s good to give back.
“We can see from people who are fighting through life, what we get to do for a living and how lucky we are.
“When it comes to our culture, it’s about appreciating what we have in front of us… being able to come together and don’t take it for granted.
“Footy can be a high-demand sport and there’s a lot of pressures that come with that. Sometimes as footy players we lose the joy of the game.
“For us at the moment, it’s about going back to our roots again and to see how lucky we do have it.
“There’s only a certain amount of time we do get to play footy… we don’t want to look back and wish we had played more footy.”
For Church, he said helping Pulu to action the idea was a no-brainer. He said it was exactly the kind of initiative he wanted to see from his players and it went hand-in-hand with the culture he expected at Brisbane Tigers in 2023.
“We want to see this. Yes, we want to be a highly skilled rugby league team but a team that supports our people and cultures is more important,” Church said.
“I was more than happy to get behind it and put it to the group. We wanted to back up what he wanted to do.
“It’s important for me that when people are driving here to the club after a long day of work, that they’re driving to an organisation where they feel they belong and they’re supported.”