Benji’s message to in-demand rep forward

NRL Rd 5 -  Dolphins v Tigers
Stefano Utoikamanu has been linked with a move to Penrith. Picture: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

Wests Tigers coach Benji Marshall has made it clear that powerhouse prop Stefano Utoikamanu is a “long-term prospect” for the club despite fears he could link up with a rival given he has unique clauses in his contract that would allow him to leave if they don’t make the finals this year.

Utoikamanu, 23, has developed into one of the best big men in the NRL right now, which is why the Panthers will be circling after the bombshell news that three-time premiership winner James Fisher-Harris is leaving to join the Warriors in 2025.

NRL Rd 6 -  Tigers v Dragons
Stefano Utoikamanu will attract plenty of interest from rivals if the Tigers fail to make the finals. Picture: Matt King/Getty Images

Utoikamanu still has another year to run on his deal, but he is allowed to leave the Tigers if they miss the top eight again, although that clause can be voided if he plays two State of Origin matches by the end of the season.

Utoikamanu made his Blues debut last year and only played 12 minutes, with new coach Michael Maguire leaving him out of a 36-man training camp earlier this year.

His form warrants selection, which would end the debate immediately, with the Tigers star averaging a career-high 112m ahead of Saturday’s showdown with Fisher-Harris and the Panthers.

“We love Stef, and we’ve made it really clear with him that he’s a big part of our future,” Marshall said.

“The fact of the matter is that he’s still on contract here next year. We all know there are clauses in his contract, but they can’t talk to him until November, so I’m not worried.

NSW Blues Captain's Run
Utoikamanu made his State of Origin debut last year but is playing even better in 2024. Picture: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

“I think it’s probably been the best footy that he’s played in his career

“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 is going well, but his footy is doing the talking, and that’s been good.

“He’s definitely in the top two or three front-rowers in the game at the moment, and from the club’s point of view, we see him as a long-term prospect for us. We’ve expressed that to him.”

NRL Rd 18 - Sea Eagles v Roosters
Taniela Paseka has dominated up front for the Sea Eagles. Picture: Jason McCawley/Getty Images

Utoikamanu faces stiff competition from the incumbent middles, while Manly’s Taniela Paseka is also in the mix after realising he’s way too big for his opponents to handle.

“If they put him in, he wouldn’t let them down. He’s big, powerful, fast and strong, and he’s got all the attributes you need (for Origin),” former NSW prop Aaron Woods said.

“He’s always had the attributes to be what he is now, but it’s just between the ears for him.

“Once he realises how big and powerful he is, he can be anything.”

Meanwhile, Marshall isn’t worrying about the looming showdown with Panthers five-eighth Jarome Luai, who will join the Tigers next year, while he couldn’t care less about his side’s stunning upset over the premiers in Bathurst last year.

“We haven’t even talked about last year,” he said after the Tigers ended their losing streak in the wet 12 months ago.

“It’s a different squad, and so are they. On the day, you still have to turn up and make it happen, so whatever happened last year doesn’t matter.”