Wests Tigers prop Stefano Utoikamanu won't represent Tonga at next month's Rugby League World Cup, instead placing his priorities toward getting his body right over the NRL off-season.
Utoikamanu was named among a 38-man squad for Kristian Woolf's side, placed alongside Tigers teammates Joe Ofahengaue and Starford To'a, as well as NRL stars Moeaki Fotuaika, David Fifita and Jason Taumalolo.
But while Mate Ma’a Tonga's forward pack depth is sure to aid their prospects at the World Cup, Utoikamanu won't feature for the Tier 2 nation.
While Tonga are still set to announce 14 cuts to their initial squad, Utoikamanu has already pulled his name from the tournament as he plans to focus on his fitness for the 2023 NRL season.
“It’s just that after the year I’ve had I need to spend as much time as I can getting my strength levels back up," Utoikamanu said in a club statement. "This is my priority right now.”
“I’ve been working hard in the gym for a while now, but I haven’t been able to do any of the real heavy stuff.
“Soon I will be able to lift the intensity with the weights and then be at the right level of strength when the squad comes back together in November.
“I’m due some luck on the injury front, that’s for sure."
Ankle and wrist injuries hampered the 22-year-old throughout this year, with Utoikamanu playing just the nine games for the Tigers in 2022.
The additions of Isaiah Papali'i and Apisai Koroisau are sure to bolster the Tigers' hopes of a top eight return in 2023, while Utoikamanu's health is sure to be a key factor in the club's success next season.
Tonga will open their World Cup campaign against Papua New Guinea on Wednesday, October 19 before rounding out their group stage fixtures against Wales and the Cook Islands.