Lang on League: Who I’d start in the front row at Penrith next year

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There’s been a lot of speculation as to who will fill the huge shoes of James Fisher-Harris when he departs Penrith at the end of the season.

Plenty of names have been bandied about but personally I’d like to see new recruit for 2025 Isaiah Papali’i get first crack at the soon-to-be–vacant front row spot alongside Moses Leota.

First up, yes, the Panthers already have some classy contenders within their playing ranks to cover the position and careful consideration must be given to Lindsay Smith, Liam Henry and even Luron Patea being given a shot.

Of those three contenders, I don’t support Patea being thrust into a starting spot so early in his first-grade career. He’s a good kid and looks like a fine prospect but no way is he ready to take on the ‘week-to-week grind’ of playing front-row in the world’s toughest rugby league competition.

Isaiah Papali’i. Photo: NRL Photos.

Liam Henry is a little further down the track but he’s still developing and getting used to playing with the big boys, so he’s probably ideally, a year or two off a starting spot as well.

Which leaves the team with Lindsay Smith, who from of all the above suggestions, is probably next-in-line and worth careful consideration.

There is no way in the world that I would entertain the idea of moving an edge weapon like Liam Martin into a battering ram position like prop. Martin is fast becoming the best second-rower in the game, so to stunt his development in that position would be criminal.

Finally, Scott Sorensen is a warrior and a workhorse but at his age (31) he is best served as an edge forward, so let’s take him out of the equation too.

So, I come back to Isaiah Papali’i who recently signed a three-year contract, which will see him become a Panther until the end of 2027.

Now for starters, Papali’i is no rookie. He has played 148 first grade games and been playing regular first grade since 2017.

Isaiah Papali’i is joining Penrith from Wests. Photo: NRL Photos.

He also has the frame for it. Papali’i is 182cm tall and weighs between 108-111kg. For comparison Fisher-Harris is 5cm taller but also five kilos lighter.

Papali’i has also already played prop during his career. Granted it’s only been in five games, but he’s shown that he can handle the position.

Yes, it’s true that in 2021 Papali’i won the Dally M Second-Rower of the Year Award but that was three years ago and a lot has changed for the man nicknamed ‘Ice’ since then.

His stint at the Tigers, which began last year, can best be described as ‘disappointing’. In the second-row, he has struggled to get involved and when he has, he looks uninterested and ineffective at times.

At prop Papali’i would get far more involved and bring the type of leg-speed and drive which would make him a perfect ‘one-two punch’ with Moses Leota, who also possess a similar frame and leg speed drive.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Papali’i ends up in the front-row at some point in his career with Penrith.

I’d just rather see that transition happen sooner rather than later.

Peter Lang

Peter Lang is an experienced sports writer, who has been covering rugby league for several decades. He first wrote Lang on League for the Weekender in the 1990s, and worked for Panthers on its famous Panthers Magazine for several years.

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