Wests Tigers will sign former Canterbury and New Zealand Test winger Matt Utai this week following the injury-forced retirement of Taniela Tuiaki.
Utai, 29, has been trialling at the club’s Concord Oval base since last month, and has been picked at centre by coach Tim Sheens for the Tigers’ first pre-season game against North Queensland in Townsville on Friday.
It is expected the Tigers will sign him early this week on a modest, second-tier contract with incentives built in to reward first-grade appearances. A premiership winner with the Bulldogs in 2004, Utai has impressed Tigers staff with his attitude and application to the pre-season, and the sad prognosis on Tuiaki’s chronic ankle injury clears the way for him to make an impact at NRL level again.
Utai would have joined the Tigers last year after pulling out of a $130,000 contract with English Super League side Celtic Crusaders, reportedly as a result of his failure to overcome a knee injury. However, the Crusaders’ subsequent demand of a transfer fee scuppered any chance of a deal, prompting Utai to spend the season playing in the NSWRL Inner City league with Auburn Warriors.
Tigers strength and conditioning guru Steve Folkes was key to getting Utai to the club this year. It was Folkes’s exit as head coach at the Bulldogs at the end of 2008 that coincided with a decline in fortunes for the powerful winger.
Under his replacement, Kevin Moore, Utai fell out of favour, playing only five NRL games in 2009 as the coach opted for an emerging Bryson Goodwin on the left wing.
In the previous season, he was restricted by injuries to 12 first-grade appearances.
The Tigers had Utai undergo a full medical screening, and reported there was nothing to preclude him playing in the NRL.