Benji Marshall is unfazed that Penrith are eyeing Wests Tigers gun Stefano Utoikamanu as a possible replacement for the outgoing James Fisher-Harris.

Ahead of the sides’ clash in Bathurst on Saturday, Marshall said Utoikamanu was happy at the Tigers, where he is a vital cog in their ongoing rebuild.

On Wednesday, the Panthers granted triple premiership-winning prop Fisher-Harris a release from his contract to return to New Zealand on compassionate grounds. 

He will join the Warriors from 2025.

Fisher-Harris’s shock exit will clear more than $900,000 from the Panthers’ salary cap for next season and transforms Ivan Cleary’s side into a major player in the transfer market.

The Panthers could use some added muscle in the middle, not least because Spencer Leniu also left last off-season, but few elite props are coming out of contract next year.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 01: James Fisher-Harris of the Panthers runs onto the field before the 2023 NRL Grand Final match between Penrith Panthers and Brisbane Broncos at Accor Stadium on October 01, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

James Fisher-Harris. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

NSW representative Utoikamanu is under contract through 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 in 2024.

Utoikamanu has been linked with the all-conquering Panthers but as far as Marshall is concerned, the player is unable to negotiate with the cashed-up Panthers until the end of the season at the earliest.

“The fact of the matter is he’s still on contract here next year,” Marshall said.

“I know there’s clauses in his contract but they can’t talk to him until November. I’m not worried about it.”

Long tipped as a future star, Utoikamanu has formed a fearsome front-row pairing with David Klemmer during the Tigers’ 2-3 start to the season.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 21: Stefano Utoikamanu in action during a Wests Tigers NRL training session at Gilbert Park on July 21, 2021 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

(Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

The 23-year-old is averaging 112 run 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.

“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.”

The Tigers welcome rookie five-eighth Lachie Galvin back from suspension to face the Panthers, whose own No.6 Jarome Luai faces his future club for the first time since agreeing terms.

Penrith’s Taylan May misses the match for a personal matter, which the Panthers told AAP was unrelated to the car hooning video the centre posted to his social media this week.

The omission paves the way for ex-Canterbury flyer Paul Alamoti to make his club debut.

Hopgood’s Origin prospects look good

Billy Slater says the door is open for Queensland’s middle forwards to force their way into the squad for the State of Origin opener amid a rising injury toll.

If, over the next five weeks, the applicants bash the door down for the June 5 clash in Sydney it will make their cause more compelling to the Maroons coach.

New contenders and players who have featured previously could be in the frame.

Parramatta’s J’maine Hopgood is close to an Origin debut after being 19th man in game three of last year’s 2-1 series win.

The 24-year-old will play lock against the Dolphins on Friday night in Darwin with another chance to press his claims in what will be his 31st consecutive game for the Eels.

PENRITH, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 15: J’maine Hopgood of the Eels is tackled during the round two NRL match between Penrith Panthers and Parramatta Eels at BlueBet Stadium, on March 15, 2024, in Penrith, Australia.

(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Melbourne veteran Christian Welch and St George Illawarra enforcer Francis Molo, who both have not featured in Origin since 2021,  also have plenty to play for. 

The Maroons will be without Dolphins lock Tom Gilbert and Gold Coast captain Tino Fa’asuamaleaui because of season-ending knee injuries.

South Sydney forward Jai Arrow, with 12 Origin games under his belt, has a shoulder complaint with an unknown return date.

“Jai is nursing an injury and hopefully he can get back to play, but there is a cloud over him,” Slater told AAP.

“The other two guys have been a fabric of the team over the last couple of years also, in particular Tino. He’s played every game the last four years.

“Where there is injury there is opportunity, and other Queenslanders will get their opportunity.”

Hopgood was in the game-three camp last year and has shone for Parramatta.

“We don’t just bring players in (to camp) for an experience. We bring them in because of the quality of football they are playing and because it is to the standard this group has created,” Slater said.

“Guys like J’maine Hopgood who weren’t in the team are obviously playing to that standard at their club.

“It is a position, in the middle of the field, that has been quite competitive for Queensland over the last few years.

“There is Christian Welch, (Gold Coast’s) Mo Fotuaika and even Francis Molo, who is doing a really good job for the Dragons.

“There is opportunity when injury comes and you have to be ready to walk through the door when it opens.

“In six weeks’ time we don’t know what cards we are going to be dealt. We have to build our best hand when we get there.”

North Queensland forward Reuben Cotter, last year’s player of the series, and Sydney Roosters prop Lindsay Collins are certainties to be selected if fit.

The Maroons are sweating on Dolphins prop Thomas Flegler’s return from a shoulder injury.

“I thought he was great last year and one of the premier front-rowers in the competition playing for the Broncos and was an integral part of game one and two for Queensland,” Slater said.

“He is not playing at the moment due to injury, which is why it is so hard to talk about players, selection and who is or is not going to be available.”

Woolf ready to take charge

Dolphins assistant Kristian Woolf has rejected suggestion the clash with Parramatta will provide a glimpse into his coaching style if Wayne Bennett fails to make a miraculous recovery from the flu.

Bennett did not travel with the Dolphins to Darwin on Wednesday evening and is at long odds to make the four-hour flight in the hours before his side plays on Friday.

Woolf, already named Bennett’s successor for 2025, is on stand-by to replace the master coach at TIO Stadium and presided over captain’s run there on Thursday night.

“(Bennett) has obviously been pretty ill, otherwise he’d be here now,” Woolf said. Bennett has been in frequent contact with his staff this week amid his recovery.

His heir apparent said nothing about preparations changing if he took the reins for an earlier-than-expected debut as Dolphins head coach. “At the end of the day, it’s still (Bennett’s) team,” Woolf said.

Kristian Woolf

(Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images)

“We’re not changing things because he’s not here at the moment, we’re doing things exactly the same as what we usually do.”

Once the hottest young coach on the market, Woolf has been earmarked as Bennett’s successor since September 2022, before the Dolphins had played a premiership game.

Aside from two games as interim coach at Newcastle in 2019, the 48-year-old is untested in the hot seat at an NRL club, though led English club St Helens to grand final glory three times in as many Super League seasons.

He was also coach of Tonga for their memorable 2019 defeat of Australia and led the Pacific nation to the 2017 World Cup semi-finals – their best result at the tournament.

But with intrigue mounting as to his NRL capabilities, Woolf shrugged off claims Friday night’s game could give punters a taster of what he can offer from 2025.

“Not at all,” Woolf said.

“Before I chose to come here, I was very much aware of the fact that for two years, my job’s to support Wayne and that’s what I’ll do, and I’ll do that to the best of my ability.

“Then obviously once this season’s over, I’ll have a look at what I’m going to do there, whether it be the same or different. But at the moment, I’ve got an important role and that’s to support him and what he wants as head coach.

“While we’ve played a little bit of a bigger role (this week) in terms of some of the delivery, at the end of the day, we’re following Wayne’s messages. We’re following what we know he wants us to do as a team. That doesn’t change.”

Equally, Woolf does not expect Bennett to be coaching from his bedside if he is unable to make it to Darwin. “He’s great to work with Wayne because he puts a lot of trust in you as an assistant coach,” Woolf said.

“If he doesn’t quite make it, he’ll show a level of trust and leave it in our hands.”

with AAP

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