Wests Tigers forward Dene Halatau is certainly no stranger to playing NRL games at Leichhardt Oval, but this week’s Round 17 clash against the Penrith Panthers on Sunday will be one with mixed emotions for the 31-year-old.
After suffering a serious ankle injury in the Club’s pre-season win over the Panthers back in February, Halatau only made his first appearance for the Club in Round 14 against the South Sydney Rabbitohs — a match in which he lasted just one minute before being knocked unconscious by George Burgess.
That saw the utility forward miss the Club’s next game against the Canberra Raiders in Round 16 as he went through the appropriate concussion protocols, before being named to return this weekend against the Panthers.
For his 199th first-grade appearance.
“Yeah, 199,” said Halatau when we caught up with him earlier this week.
“I was kind of hoping that I could get through a good game against the Rabbitohs in Round 14 and then get picked against Canberra so this would be my 200th first-grade game this weekend, but it obviously wasn’t to be.
“I played my debut game at Leichhardt Oval and it would have been nice to play by 200th there as well, this weekend but just didn’t quite work it out like that.
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Having missed the Club’s Round 5 and 8 matches at the venue this year, Halatau is yet to play at Leichhardt Oval since making his return to Wests Tigers from the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, and said that he can’t wait to get out on the field once more — especially if there’s a strong crowd behind him on the day.
“There’s just something special about Leichhardt,” he said. “ I love playing there.”
“Really looking forward to running back out there again in Wests Tigers colours and hopefully there’s a big crowd on the day to cheer us on.
“The boys really lift when there’s a massive crowd there yelling your name and cheering you on, so hopefully that’s the case again this Sunday.”
One of the more experienced players in still a very young Wests Tigers team, Halatau knows that his wisdom over the years will play a big part in the development of those around him at the Club — particularly in ensuring that the boys remain grounded heading into this week’s big clash against the Panthers.
“Penrith have had a great season so far,” he said.
“We went through some vision yesterday and just watching the video of their attack and what they’re doing with the ball — it’s pretty impressive and it’s why they’re looking so good.
“It’s good that we have a good record against the Panthers and we want to keep that going, but I don’t think you can rely on that alone — especially when they’re sitting near the top of the table.
"They’re going really good at the moment and it’s going to be a big test this week to keep our good run against them going.
“We’ve got a forward pack this year that’s tried to be a bit more aggressive and really stamp their authority on games, but with that comes the opportunity to give away penalties, and that’s start to hurt us lately.
“Hopefully we can find the balance between keeping that aggression and not giving away so many penalties when we don’t need to.
“Penrith are a good team, and they’ll punish us if we’re not disciplined.”