NRL Market Watch 2022: Seven young guns set to help Wests Tigers’ next great era

The future could hardly look brighter for Wests Tigers, with seven members of a drought-breaking team primed to form the nucleus of the club’s next first-grade squad.

They’re the schoolboys who broke a Western Suburbs hoodoo stretching 20 years.

That, and now shape as the future of Wests Tigers.

While largely anonymous to most NRL fans, the Magpies 2022 Harold Matthews premiers are quietly shaping as Generation Next for the joint-venture club.

Apart from being the first Wests team to ever win the Harold Matthews title, they are also the club’s first junior premiers since 2002 – when an SG Ball mob including Ryan Hoffman, Liam Fulton and Bryce Gibbs went all the way.

So what chance a future Wests Tigers star among this crop, too?

Already, Tigers officials are looking to secure the futures of several team members, 90 per cent of whom hail from the local area.

Some of the names Tigers fans are being urged to keep an eye on include captain Kit Laulilii, hooker Tallyn Da Silva, halfback Heath Mason and prop Jordan Miller.

Magpies Harold Matthews winners (L to R) Will Craig, Jeremiah Leatigaga, Tallyn Da Silva, Heath Mason and Lachlan Galvin pictured. Picture: Sam Ruttyn
Magpies Harold Matthews winners (L to R) Will Craig, Jeremiah Leatigaga, Tallyn Da Silva, Heath Mason and Lachlan Galvin pictured. Picture: Sam Ruttyn

Asked about the team, Western Suburbs pathways manager Shannon Gallant agreed the aim was to ensure these teenage premiers progressed just like their predecessors 20 years ago.

Both Gibbs and Fulton went on to become members of the 2005 Wests Tigers premiership team, while Hoffman also enjoyed his own grand final successes with Melbourne Storm.

“Our goal is to make sure these boys commit to Wests Tigers, just as we’ll commit to them,” Gallant said.

“We need to make sure we continue their development – and over the right time frame – to put them in the best position possible to one day play NRL.”

Gallant added the same successes were also happening on the Balmain side of the merger, with the Tigers finishing the SG Ball season in third.

Elsewhere, the club has also invested heavily in its women’s pathways, with the club gunning to field an NRLW side as soon as next year.

Asked for a hit list of seven players to watch, Gallant nominated the following …

* Kit Laulilii

Position: Lock

Club: Liverpool Catholic Club

“Our captain and our lock for the past three years. Outstanding leader and very consistent too, an eight out of 10 every week. There have also been times this year where the team was in some trouble and, at halftime, his speeches to the boys were incredible … you could see them all really buy in. As a staff that’s great to see.”

Liam Fulton and Bryce Gibbs celebrate the Tigers 2005 premiership win.
Liam Fulton and Bryce Gibbs celebrate the Tigers 2005 premiership win.

* Tallyn Da Silva

Position: Hooker

Club: East Campbelltown Eagles

“Really good running game from dummy half and passes strong both ways, which is rare for a player this age. Has also really grown defensively this year too. In the grand final, Tallyn was responsible for some great defensive efforts. We’re excited to see what he does moving forward.”

* Heath Mason

Position: Half

Club: Thirlmere Roosters

“A born footy player. He’s a bright student at St Gregory’s college and is a real student of rugby league also. Has that ability to set up teammates and continually take the right option. Importantly, never goes missing either. At the 78th minute, he’ll be the guy who stands up for you. That can’t be coached.”

Wests prop Jordan Miller. Photo: Warren Gannon.
Wests prop Jordan Miller. Photo: Warren Gannon.

* Jordan Miller

Position: Front row

Club: Liverpool Catholic Club

“Best front rower in the competition. Got Man of the Match on grand final day and is a real success story, given he didn’t make Harold Matthews two years ago. His ability to lead the side and make those around him better has been outstanding. Has a great carry, too — attracts defenders, carries them and offloads.”

* Lachlan Galvin

Position: Back Row/Half

Club: Eaglevale St Andrews

“A No. 6, and local junior, who went to Parramatta but came back home this year and found himself on an edge as one of our backrowers. His ball playing ability is terrific. Doesn’t stick to a structure either and created a heap of opportunities. At SG Ball I think he will move back to five-eighth, but where he eventually ends up will depend on what changes his body makes over the next couple of years.”

Wests centre Will Craig. Picture: Warren Gannon
Wests centre Will Craig. Picture: Warren Gannon

* Will Craig

Position: Centre/Fullback

Club: East Campbelltown Eagles

“Played centre for us this year and, defensively, was outstanding. Also has a terrific attitude. Despite having played fullback most of his life, he really took up the challenge at centre and became a vital part of our success this year.”

* Jeremiah Leatigaga

Position: Second Row

Club: Liverpool Catholic Club

“The character of our group and a really strong defender. Pulled off some cracking tackles this year. He’s also that leader in the group who is always there to pick up the other boys. Played Andrew Johns Cup last year, made Country and has come on in leaps and bounds.”

WARRIORS PULL OFF MID-SEASON ROOSTER RAID

The Warriors are set to snatch two Roosters with immediate effect.

New Zealand – who are on the verge of releasing Kodi Nikorima to South Sydney – are making moves of their own to strengthen their squad heading into the second half of the season.

They are expected to sign Roosters hooker Freddy Lussick for the rest of the season while emerging half Ronald Volkman will also join the club.

Lussick is off-contract at season’s end and has yet to play first grade this year. He had a loan stints at the Dragons last season.

Volkman was already joining the Warriors on a three year deal from next season but that move has been fast-tracked.

Rising halfback Ronald Volkman. Picture: NRL
Rising halfback Ronald Volkman. Picture: NRL

The price tag of Panther’s loyalty

Spencer Leniu only wants to play for Penrith but he’s realistic about what the club’s salarycap squeeze could mean for his future at the foot of the mountains.

Leniu is one of eight Panthers, including Brian To’o, Stephen Crichton and boom centre Izack Tago, without a deal beyond 2023 and are set to hit the market from November 1.

Emerging star winger Taylan May is also without a deal beyond 2022.

It’s believed leading agent Sam Ayoub, who looks after To’o, Crichton and Tago, has had initial talks about contract extensions for his clients.

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“I was born in New Zealand but have been living in the area since I came from NZ. This is home for me. I can’t really see myself anywhere else but like I said when the time comes to cross that bridge, I’ll cross it,” Leniu said.

“I honestly can’t see myself in other colours but if I had to go then it is what it is.”

Prop Leniu, a Panthers local junior and junior NSW Blues representative, has attracted interest from rivals since first making his NRL debut in 2019.

Spencer Leniu Picture: NRL Photos
Spencer Leniu Picture: NRL Photos

Before extending at Penrith in December 2020, Canterbury tried to woo Leniu with a deal believed to be worth around $500,000 per season.

Leniu also had multiple talks with Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy, who is looking to shore up the Storm’s forward stocks with Jesse Bromwich off to the Dolphins next season.

In the end, Leniu agreed to terms with Penrith on an upgraded deal and the 21-year-old, now a premiership winner, could expect a further top-up in any new deal.

Leniu is committed to seeing out the rest of his deal with Penrith has no intentions of departing the club before the end of 2023.

“I love this club. This is kind of the first time I have heard reports about me going anywhere. I have another year next year and whatever happens I’m just focused on doing my best for the team, whatever happens after that, happens after that.” Leniu said.

“I’ll cross that bridge when it comes, I have a full now and next year so my mind is focused my best footy for this team.”

Penrith have already locked in James Fisher-Harris, who is arguably the best prop in the game, until the end of 2026 and Moses Leota until the end of 2024.

Patrician Brothers Fairfield Schoolboy Cup stars Stephen Crichton & Spencer Leniu are both off contract at the end of 2023. Supplied
Patrician Brothers Fairfield Schoolboy Cup stars Stephen Crichton & Spencer Leniu are both off contract at the end of 2023. Supplied

A big reason for wanting to stay is continuing to build a formidable pack rotation with Fisher-Harris and Leota.

“Fish and Moses have been a big part of my development here, in my first year. I knew Moses before coming into the first grade system. He has been my biggest mentor coming into the NRL and developing my game. He’s a really hard working and I try to be a sponge and absorb what I can from those two,” Leniu.

“They are probably the best front rowers in the comp. It’s been good working under them.”

Leniu has had ‘limited’ minutes so far this season despite starting prop Leota being sidelined with a shoulder injury since round two.

Coach Ivan Cleary has opted to start Matt Eisenhuth and use Leniu off the bench, where the forward’s line speed and aggression has helped him jag three tries.

“Whatever Ivan Cleary wants me to do in the team I’ll do it to the best of my ability, no matter if I play five, 10 minutes however, I’ll take those minutes with both hands and go full steam,” Leniu said.

Penrith’s premiership success has inevitable created financial pressure that has seen barnstorming backrower Viliame Kikau and hooker Api Koroisau commit their futures at rival clubs.

But the premiers have moved to lock up a core group of players, including Fisher-Harris, Leota, Jarome Luai, Isaah Yeo, Dylan Edwards and Nathan Cleary until at least 2024.

IVAN CLEARY KIKS TIGERS WHILE THEY’RE DOWN

Penrith coach Ivan Cleary has come back to haunt the Wests Tigers, using his one-time association with Luke Garner to poach the back-rower as the premiers’ replacement for Viliame Kikau.

As revealed by News Corp, Garner dropped a bombshell on the Tigers by quitting the joint-venture club on Wednesday to join the Panthers on a two-year deal starting next season.

The rangy Garner had interest from a number of NRL rivals, including Parramatta, Newcastle and the Gold Coast Titans, but opted for the Panthers as the premiers plan for life after Canterbury-bound back-rower Kikau.

Such was Garner’s desire to experience success and win a premiership ring, the 26-year-old took a pay cut on his $375,000 deal at the Wests Tigers to link with the Penrith juggernaut.

Panthers premiership coach Cleary was a pivotal figure in the poaching raid.

Luke Garner is heading from the Tigers to the Panthers/ Picture: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)
Luke Garner is heading from the Tigers to the Panthers/ Picture: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Cleary handed Garner his NRL debut at the Wests Tigers in 2018 before sensationally walking out on the joint venture club the following season to return to Penrith in a move that saw him branded a traitor by furious Tigers fans.

Now Cleary has struck another blow on the Tigers, who are desperately trying to rebuild the embattled club under coach Michael Maguire and head of football Tim Sheens.

Garner’s manager Tas Bartlett confirmed the hard-running forward was attracted by the challenge of re-igniting his career under Cleary at a Penrith club targeting a premiership dynasty after their title breakthrough last season.

“Ivan gave Luke his NRL debut for the Tigers, so they have a history and Luke has great respect for Ivan,” said Bartlett of PSM.

“Players like to go where they are most comfortable and Luke likes the coach and believes he can win a premiership at the Panthers.

“It’s a good signing for Penrith. They will only have one or two new guys coming into the team next year so the Panthers have stability as a club and it was a pretty easy sell for Luke.

“The Tigers have had some lean years and Luke hasn’t been able to play finals footy, but now he is joining a Rolls Royce footy side and he is keen to press for a grand final and hopefully win a comp.”

Viliame Kikau’s departure will leave a big void on the left edge for the Panthers. Picture: Brett Hemmings/Getty Images
Viliame Kikau’s departure will leave a big void on the left edge for the Panthers. Picture: Brett Hemmings/Getty Images

It is understood the Panthers had limited spending power under the salary cap and were on the lookout for a shrewd buy to replace Kikau, who has signed a big-money deal with the Bulldogs next season.

Cleary believes he has a ‘Money Ball’ purchase in Garner, who has played 62 top-grade games for the Tigers since his NRL debut in 2018.

Garner runs strong lines on the edges and is also versatile, with the Dubbo product named at centre for Saturday’s clash against Manly at Brookvale.

“Luke seems a logical choice to replace Kikau,” Bartlett said.

“Luke is a left side back-rower and with Kikau going to the Bulldogs, Garner has a real opportunity to slot straight in and make the position his own if he can.

“The Panthers are the best team in the league so it’s a great opportunity.

“He had some interest from quite a few clubs but it was hard to go past the Panthers given their current standing in the game.”

RABBITOHS CHASE NIKORIMA

South Sydney are locked in talks with Kodi Nikorima over an immediate move to the Rabbitohs.

News Corp understands Nikorima, who is off contract at the end of the season, has been given permission to negotiate with rival clubs by the Warriors.

It is understood he had already indicated to the Warriors that he would not return with the club to Auckland next year.

The New Zealand international has played just five matches this season, largely off the interchange bench, and would provide Souths with backup in both the halves and hooking positions.

Kodi Nikorima is eyeing a switch to the Rabbitohs (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
Kodi Nikorima is eyeing a switch to the Rabbitohs (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Souths have room in their salary cap after a deal to sign former Brisbane half Anthony Milford collapsed.

Nikorima has missed the past two games due to Covid protocols and has not been named to play against the Sharks on Sunday.

In a twist to the deal, South Sydney are scheduled to play against the Warriors next week at Magic Round.

Originally published as NRL Market Watch 2022: Seven young guns set to help Wests Tigers’ next great era

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