How Panthers centre Izack Tago became Penrith’s newest rising star
Posted On April 5, 2022
It’s not easy to be the new man in a premiership-winning team, but rising Penrith star Izack Tago is playing as though he’s been a big-time Panther all his life.
Penrith centre Izack Tago has been one of the NRL’s rising stars in 2022
The Panthers flyer has been a dynamic presence on Penrith’s left edge
Along with childhood friend Taylan May, Tago is one of a new generation of Panthers stars
Had he not played six games in 2021 – one over the threshold for what counts as a player’s debut season – he’d be the runaway favourite for rookie of the year.
Through four matches this year Tago has been one of the NRL’s top centres, scoring four tries, setting up two more and busting 17 tackles.
He’s quick to credit his more experienced counterparts, Jarome Luai and Viliame Kikau, but Tago isn’t just along for the ride and is fast becoming a weapon in his own right.
“It’s the people around me. I saw a few Insta posts saying all the centres on the left side have been good but I put it down to the team,” Tago said.
“I slot in and do my job and everyone else makes me feel comfortable. We enjoy the grind, that’s our favourite time, and scoring tries is just a bonus.”
Those Instagram posts are right about one thing – playing left centre for the Panthers has been a good way to cross the line in recent years.
Stephen Crichton crossed for 17 four-pointers outside Luai in 2020 and Matt Burton matches the total last year en route to winning one of the spots in the Dally M team of the year.
But it’s not as easy as taking a man off the street and having Luai and Kikau carry him to glory.
Crichton is a superb athlete who is a nightmare to handle one-on-one, while Burton’s deadly left foot step meant he beat plenty of defenders before he’d even got the ball.
Tago is different in style to those two – he’s more rugged, more physical, but also has a good turn of pace and covers the ground with a gait as smooth as power steering.
A strong pre-season put him in the box seat to succeed Burton as part of Penrith’s deadly left edge, a chance he’s made the most of so far.
“I wouldn’t call it pressure, but I knew what was expected of me. I just wanted to enjoy the challenge.
“Romey takes charge a lot, but Kiks has made me feel comfortable. It’s pretty cool that both of them have the ability to pass and run and strike all over the field. It definitely opens up different attacking paths for us.”
He’s also been rock-solid in defence, something he credits to his time spent in the backrow in the lower grades, extensive grappling sessions with former UFC champion Rob Whittaker’s team and the coaching of top assistant Cameron Ciraldo.
“I’d say playing in the forwards helps, but I did a lot of work out at Smeaton Grange (with former UFC champion Rob Whittaker), shout out to those guys, that was a big part of it and our defensive coach Cirro does a lot of work with me as well,” Tago said.
“I wouldn’t be a strong defensive player without him.”
It’s a measure of Tago’s quality and his ability to quickly adapt to first grade that even when Brian To’o suffered an ankle injury against the Dragons in Round 2, Tago’s own form continued to improve.
He’s the senior man in the centre-wing pairing now, with good mate Taylan May boasting just three NRL games to his credit.
May has made an equally fast start to life as a starter, crossing for five tries in two games this year and averaging 183 metres per game.
To’o is certain to retain his place in the side once fit, but May’s finishing ability and powerful carries from his own end could force coach Ivan Cleary into a difficult choice between the 20-year old and cult hero Charlie Staines.
“Brian was always talking to me on the field, making sure I know what I’m doing,” Tago said.
“Me and Tiny went to high school together since Year 7 and we were pretty close because our brothers were already at school together, we came up playing through the grades together.”
With Tago ineligible, May could well storm to rookie of the year honours himself should these results continue.
“I think we have a lot of superstars in this team. Bizza is out and he’s been helping me and Tago and I have been playing together since we were young,” May said.
“Having Kiks and Romey inside me is easy because they just put it on a dime for me and all I have to do is finish it.”