David Fifita met with Penrith officials as a decision on his future looms. Image by Jono Searle/AAP PHOTOS
  • rugby league

Panthers circle ‘marquee’ Fifita as contract call looms

Jasper Bruce May 6, 2024

Ivan Cleary has labelled prospective Panther David Fifita a “marquee player” as the Gold Coast wrecking ball prepares to make a call on his NRL future in the coming days.

To remain at the Titans in 2025, barnstorming second-rower Fifita must trigger a player option in his contract by round 10, which begins on Thursday.

The 24-year-old flew to Sydney and met Panthers officials on Sunday evening, with the triple reigning premiers in a position to make a lucrative offer now that James Fisher-Harris is leaving to join the Warriors in 2025.

 Fifita has been described as a marquee player by Panthers coach Ivan Cleary. Image by Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS 

The Panthers are understood to have tabled Fifita a long-term deal worth an estimated $850,000 a season from 2025 but Cleary held his cards close to his chest when pressed on Monday.

“It’s obviously a very sensitive issue, all recruitment,” the Penrith coach said.

“It affects a lot of people at clubs, players, agents, families. I think we’ve probably filled our quota for recruitment stories this year so I’m not going to discuss it today.”

Fifita could slot into Penrith’s left second-row spot, which has featured a rotating cast since Viliame Kikau joined Canterbury for 2023.

Scott Sorensen is currently the first-choice second-rower on that edge, though he arrived at the club as a middle forward and could be switched back to accommodate Fifita’s arrival.

“He’s a marquee player,” Cleary said of Fifita

Regardless of the prospective recruit, Cleary was not opposed to tweaking his side for 2025, having learned from the slow start to last season that followed multiple player exits.

“We’re always looking to evolve,” he said.

“If you’re just staying the same, you’re going to get passed. There’s always a danger if you do that too much, you lose track of what you’re good at, too.

“It’s a bit of a balance. We got that a little bit wrong early last year.”

It’s an unfamiliar position for the NRL’s heavyweight side, famed for its ability to scout and develop elite junior prospects; only six players who made their debuts elsewhere have won a grand final with the Panthers in the last three years.

 Fifita has a player option in his Titans contract which he can trigger. Image by Jono Searle/AAP PHOTOS 

The funds to lure a big fish have also eluded the Panthers in recent years as their local talents’ pay packets have increased.

Cleary credited Kurt Capewell and Api Koroisau’s arrivals for the 2020 season as the last major arrivals at the club, though a case could be made that it hasn’t been since James Maloney in 2018 that a household name was lured to Penrith.

“It’s different,” Cleary said of the current situation.

“Our mandate at the club is to build from within.

“We spend a lot of time and money and effort in that regard and we still will. But from time to time, if you don’t have that, you’ve got to look outside.”