How Panthers centre Izack Tago became Penrith’s newest rising star

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.

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.

Tago has scored four tries in as many matches this year. (Getty Images: Cameron Spencer)

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.

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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.

Reference-www.abc.net.au

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