June 25, 2024

For Wests Tigers enforcer Stefano Utoikamanu, a significant moment drives him forward — a mere 12 minutes and 35 seconds etched in his memory.

This pivotal moment occurred during his State of Origin debut for New South Wales last year. Utoikamanu, long considered a future representative player for his state, received a surprise call-up for the Blues’ crucial game two clash against Queensland at Lang Park.

Entering the field when the Blues were already trailing 10-0, Utoikamanu had a brief stint before halftime. By the time he was substituted off seven minutes into the second half, Queensland had extended their lead to 16-0. That brief appearance marked the entirety of his debut in sky blue.

A player runs the ball during a rugby league match

After years of anticipation and hard work, Utoikamanu’s State of Origin debut was over in a flash — a fleeting moment that lasted just slightly longer than the duration of listening to Bohemian Rhapsody twice. It became a footnote in Queensland’s dominant 32-6 victory.

Utoikamanu’s omission from the Blues squad for game three and his absence from Michael Maguire’s initial train-on squad over the summer initially left him disappointed. However, after speaking with Maguire and understanding the situation, he remains determined to prove himself and earn a spot in the team.

“I had a conversation with [Maguire] after not being selected initially. It was tough at first, but I respected his decision. Now, I’m focused on demonstrating that I’m ready for the challenge and deserving of a place in the squad,” Utoikamanu explained.

“I recently had another meeting with him to discuss the upcoming Origin campaign, given the changes in coaching staff. My goal is clear – I want to represent my state this year. I’m committed to helping our club succeed and will do whatever it takes to achieve that.”

Although Origin is still months away, Utoikamanu has been showcasing his abilities on the field for the Tigers, particularly in their recent victory against Parramatta. He has been a standout performer, averaging 130 meters gained per match and tallying 15 tackle busts in three games – a significant improvement from last season.

As a leader within the Tigers’ squad, Utoikamanu has been instrumental in setting the tempo during matches and providing guidance to his teammates. He acknowledges the support he receives from experienced players like Api Koroisau and Benji Marshall, as well as the coaching staff, in his development.

Reflecting on their recent performances, Utoikamanu emphasized the importance of owning their roles and executing their game plan effectively. He takes pride in leading by example on the field and aims to instill a strong work ethic within the team.

“Having experienced Origin, I understand the level of commitment required to succeed. There are many talented young players in our team, and I want to show them the importance of earning your place every week. That’s the mentality I bring – you have to earn it, week in and week out,” Utoikamanu concluded.

Extending his playing time beyond the initial 12 minutes and 35 seconds remains a goal for Utoikamanu, but he acknowledges that achieving it hinges on the success of the Tigers as a team.

Recognizing that many players have had limited opportunities in Origin, Utoikamanu is determined to make the most of any chance he gets to represent New South Wales. He understands that a strong performance with the Tigers will enhance his prospects of earning selection in representative teams.

“While personal improvement is important to me, I prioritize contributing to our team’s success. Winning games makes it easier to catch the selectors’ eyes,” Utoikamanu explained.

“Origin is a tough arena, especially when your team isn’t performing well. You need to be mentally prepared for the challenge. Physically, I feel ready, but mentally, I need to be in the right mindset.”

For Utoikamanu, mental fortitude is the next frontier in his development. Despite his physical prowess and dedicated work ethic, he recognizes the importance of mental resilience, especially in a demanding sport like rugby league. The Tigers’ unexpected success this season is a testament to their collective mental growth, which they aim to maintain in their upcoming match against the Dolphins.

“The mental aspect of the game is crucial. Everyone has a similar physical capacity, so mental toughness sets players apart. It’s something we’ve been focusing on and improving throughout the season,” Utoikamanu emphasized.

“Building mental strength boosts confidence and helps us perform consistently week after week.”

A man passes the ball during a rugby league training session

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