Benji Marshall slaps down NRL move from Panthers amid bid to replace James Fisher-Harris

Penrith are suddenly cashed up and are said to be targeting Wests Tigers prop Stefano Utoikamanu.

Benji Marshall has warned the Panthers against speaking to Stefano Utoikamanu, amid speculation they're targeting the State of Origin prop to replace James Fisher-Harris. The Panthers were rocked by a fresh departure this week when Fisher-Harris requested to be released from the final two years of his contract so he could return home to New Zealand to be closer to family.

He subsequently signed with Warriors for 2025, joining a long list of premiership players to depart the Panthers in recent years. But the move comes with a silver lining in that it frees up around $900,000 for the three-time defending champions to spend on the open market.

Benji Marshall alongside Penrith Panthers players.
Benji Marshall (L) has slapped down interest from the Panthers to replace James Fisher-Harris (R) with Stefano Utoikamanu. Image: Getty

Utoikamanu and David Fifita have already been touted as potential targets, but not if Tigers coach Marshall has anything to do with it. Utoikamanu, who played one game for NSW in 2023, is currently under contract until the end of 2025 but has a get-out clause that can be triggered if he misses State of Origin selection or the Tigers fail to play finals this season.

As far as Marshall is concerned, the Panthers can't negotiate with Utoikamanu until next season at the earliest due to NRL rules stipulating players can't speak to rival clubs until the final year of their deal. "The fact of the matter is he's still on contract here next year," Marshall said on Friday ahead of a showdown between the Tigers and Panthers in Bathurst on Saturday. "I know there's clauses in his contract but they can't talk to him until November. I'm not worried about it."

Stefano Utoikamanu, pictured here in action for the Wests Tigers.
Stefano Utoikamanu in action for the Wests Tigers.


Benji Marshall's high praise for Stefano Utoikamanu

Utoikamanu is being tipped to play Origin again this year after starting the season in strong form. He has formed a fearsome front-row pairing with David Klemmer, helping the Tigers win two of their first five games.

The 23-year-old is averaging 112 metres and 29 tackles per game under rookie coach Marshall, who flagged his representative credentials after the Tigers beat Parramatta earlier this month. "It's probably been the best footy he's played in his career," Marshall said of Utoikamanu's recent form.

“People are talking about him for Origin and that, and he’s earned that through the way that he’s been playing. I noticed in the pre-season just the level that he went to, and that pre-season set up him to have a really good season. We’re really happy with the way that he’s going.

"You've got to be happy to play good footy. He's expecting a baby pretty soon and his life's going good. His footy's doing the talking and that's probably the biggest thing. But he's definitely in the top two or three front-rowers in the game at the moment. We see him as a long-term prospect for us. We've expressed that to him."

Dragons blow as Panthers get more money to offer Sunia Turuva

Fisher-Harris' departure will also seemingly allow the Panthers to offer more money than previously expected for Sunia Turuva. The in-demand winger is being heavily courted by the Dragons, but the Panthers will have more to offer now that $900,000 is back in the bank.

Turuva is without a deal beyond this season and has been linked with a move to St George Illawarra, who have ample cash to spend due to Zac Lomax's release to the Eels for 2024. Last week Panthers coach Ivan Cleary said the club were in no rush to open formal contract negotiations with the Fijian international, but it would come soon.

"We're aware of where we're at in that sense, but we haven't sat down and spoken about that yet. It'll obviously come in the next couple of weeks," Cleary said. "We're just concerned about this week's game. We love 'Tito', we'd love nothing more than to keep him here. I don't want to think about him going anywhere or playing for anyone but us."

with AAP