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The Christmas Day curls that set Stefano towards the Cauldron

The sun had barely risen over the rooftops of Sydney's inner west on Christmas morning when the alarm at Wests Tigers' training facility started sounding.

A hulking young man, tipping the scales at 115 kilograms and over 190 centimetres tall, was trying to get in.

"It's just me," Stefano Utoikamanu frantically conveyed over the phone to Billy, the team manager. "I just wanted to come in and do a bit of extra training."

"I try to get a few sessions in before Christmas just to make myself feel better about what I'm about to eat but I didn't realise that everything was locked," Utoikamanu told "It was pretty funny when we figured out it was just me."

Just a few weeks after switching from Parramatta to Wests Tigers at the end of the 2020 season, Utoikamanu had already given his new club a taste of exactly what was to come. 

Stefano ready for Origin cauldron

Blessed with a frame any aspiring NRL player would dream of, it’s easy to say that the "bolter" Brad Fittler had earmarked since his junior representative match-winning feats in 2018 was destined for the Origin cauldron.

But long before his name was thrown around in such circles, the no-nonsense prop had a passion for hard work and a desire to learn from those around him – eventually leading him to where he is today.

It was former Wests Tigers coach Michael Maguire who saw first hand the work ethic instilled within the Eels junior who will be forever renowned at Concord for setting off the club's alarm on December 25.

Rookie Reflections: Stefano Utoikamanu

“I remember that day he was trying to get into the gym to do some training. That just shows how he was always such a diligent sort of player and always willing to go above and beyond," Maguire told

“His work ethic is the reasons why he's continually improved. He always did his extras.

“It's nice to see it pay off, to see one of the younger players that you sort of brought through at a younger age be up there with the best."

It was 2018, when Utoikamanu scored the winning try for NSW in a man-of-the-match performance in the under 18s Origin that Maguire first began to think of luring the teenager to Wests Tigers.

Likened to front-rowers of the calibre of fellow NSW prop Payne Haas and current teammate David Klemmer, Maguire saw not only a future representative star in Utoikamanu, but also captaincy credentials – rare for a forward of his age.

Utoikamanu carries several Queenslanders over the line

“He was one of the young up and coming guys who came through the junior NSW Origin system and I knew Freddy was a pretty keen advocate of Stef as a real quality person, great team man,” Maguire said.

“Brad Arthur put a lot of time in him as well, prior to him coming to the Wests Tigers. Stef had a number of players just in front of him there, which allowed me to sort of to grab him out of Parramatta.

“I remember having a conversation with Freddy about him and he was very keen to give him a go in the squad in 2021.

"Every time he went into that Origin space in and around the players, I always felt he grew from that experience. Any senior player that he had within the team, he always wanted to learn from.

He was always such a dominant player. He was one of the bigger kids in the team, but he always worked really hard at his game, which is one of the reasons why he's probably achieved so much at such a young age.

Michael Maguire Former Wests Tigers coach

“So I see him handling the Origin arena quite well because he's been in and around the boys over the years. I think that will give him a great benefit when he runs out on the field."

Fittler has had the talented prop in his sights since coaching the NSW under-16's and under-18's teams, which in 2017 included his brother, Filia.

Filia's career was ended by a neck injury while Stefano has been a member of Fittler's extended Blues squad since 2021.

Fittler talks Blues changes

"I coached him when he was 15 so I’ve known him for a long time," Fittler said. "I also coached his brother, as well.

"For two or three years he had a bad run with injuries ... but I’ve always just had confidence that he’ll make the next step.

"I’m interested and nervous, and in awe of it for him, because I definitely think he’s part of the future and what a way to start it."

Utoikamanu is just the latest in a number of Blues players – six, in total – who have taken on captaincy roles at club level, having led Wests Tigers in the Pre-Season Challenge earlier this year. 

“I'm still learning now from all these guys here. A lot of them are captains at their club so it's pretty cool to be around these guys,” Utoikamanu said.

“When I captained, I was a bit shocked how much you don't really have to do. I was overthinking what I was going to say to the boys, but everyone already knows their role.

“I think it taught me a lot about how to be mature as a player and how to talk to the team when you need to talk and when to step back and let them do their own thing.

“Api (Koroisau) is really good at saying really short, to the point messages for us.

“I think I’ve just always liked learning off more experienced players," he added. We have David Klemmer at Tigers and he’s been huge for me and also and players like Jimmy Tamou and Joe Ofahengaue. They've all been good leaders for myself.

“I also got to learn off Junes [Junior Paulo] at Parramatta. He doesn't talk a whole heap but he leads by his actions.

You see on the field how big and strong he is. I think that was good for me to see you don't have to talk to be a leader, you can lead through actions too.

Stefano Utoikamanu Blues forward

Utoikamanu's leadership capabilities certainly aren't a surprise to those who have witnessed his rise since up close, like Paulo, who played in his NRL debut with the Eels and will again be a team-mate in Origin.

“I had a bit of time with Stefano when he was at Parramatta as a youngster and he has been in our [Origin] system for the past couple of years so he deserves his opportunity," Paulo said.

“He has become a leader at such a young age at the Tigers and he has been able to take that head on.

Stefano Utoikamanu in Blues camp ahead of next Wednesday's decider.
Stefano Utoikamanu in Blues camp ahead of next Wednesday's decider. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

'He may not be the most vocal leader but he definitely leads with his actions."

Maguire said he was proud of what Utoikamanu has achieved. 

“I saw a lot of leadership in him as such a younger player, which was something that really stood out," Maguire said.

"He was just so determined to succeed and it's nice to see him getting the rewards.

"There’s nothing better as a coach then to see players you've helped in a little way along their journey to try and be a successful footballer, achieve their dreams."

Acknowledgement of Country

Wests Tigers respect and honour the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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