‘Stef, don’t leave’: Tigers plead with Utoikamanu

Jasper Bruce |

Tiger burning bright: Stefano Utoikamanu’s teammates are hopeful the prop will stay with the club.
Tiger burning bright: Stefano Utoikamanu’s teammates are hopeful the prop will stay with the club.

Api Koroisau wants Stefano Utoikamanu at Wests Tigers for life as the prop’s State of Origin omission moves him one step closer to the open market.

Utoikamanu’s career-best form to start the year wasn’t enough to secure him a second NSW cap in Wednesday’s Origin series opener, with new coach Michael Maguire instead preferring Isaah Yeo and Spencer Leniu as middle-forward options on his bench.

Utoikamanu is contracted with the Tigers through 2025, but his deal includes a get-out clause that allows him to join a rival club next year if he fails to be selected for two Origin games in 2024 and his NRL outfit miss out on finals.

With the Tigers languishing in 16th spot on the ladder and only two more NSW teams to be picked this year, there’s a very real chance Utoikamanu could be lured away.

Cashed-up Penrith are among those interested in the 24-year-old, as a replacement for the outgoing James Fisher-Harris.

The Tigers have remained publicly confident Utoikamanu, rated one of the NRL’s best young forwards, is happy at the club and reports this week linked him to a new deal.

Club captain Koroisau is hopeful Utoikamanu will stay put as the long-term strugglers continue their rebuild under coach Benji Marshall.

“It’s out of our control,” Koroisau said.

“I’m sure he’s got a million people in his ear at the moment. I make jokes around it, that’s my way of coping. That’s my way of trying to keep him here.

“(The contract situation) is a weird position to be in. He’s so young and he’s such a great athlete, great rugby league player.

“He’s a young man, he’s got to look after himself, but I hope he’s a Tiger for life. I love playing beside him. Stef, don’t leave.”

Utoikamanu’s powerful start to the year has also impressed fellow front-rower Alex Twal.

“He’s a massive body, big athletic thing. With the way the game’s going at the moment, players like big Stefano and those blokes, it definitely suits him,” Twal said.

But like Koroisau, Twal is reluctant to sit Utoikamanu down for a heart-to-heart chat about his future.

“I encourage every single player in the squad to do what’s best for them and their family, because ultimately your family is number one and everything else comes second,” he said.

“Whatever decision he makes, first and foremost – as a good friend and teammate – I’ll be supporting him.”