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In the pink: Origin period makes Penrith a star factory

3 minute read

Penrith have used recent State of Origin series to blood the next generation of stars, with two more ready to rise and shine during this year's series.

If history is anything to go by, Preston Riki and Trent Toelau will take the first steps in fulfilling their premiership dreams when they make their debut for Penrith during the State of Origin period.

The Panthers have been decimated by mid-season Origin selection in their three consecutive premiership seasons, and in response have brought five players in for club debuts across those campaigns.

Four of those players - Jack Cogger, Lindsay Smith, Jaeman Salmon and Izack Tago - went on to win premierships at the Panthers, with only playmaker Kurt Falls failing to cement his spot in a grand final team.

Dylan Edwards, Isaah Yeo, Liam Martin, Brian To'o and Jarome Luai are all at NSW camp ahead of the June 5 series opener, with a hamstring injury to Nathan Cleary further depleting the reigning premiers' stocks.

That's opened chances for second-rower Riki and half Toelau to make their NRL debut from the bench against St George Illawarra on Saturday.

Riki, 26, arrived at the Panthers from the Warriors on a development deal in 2022 and has since worked his way into the top-30 squad.

Victoria-born Toelau, 24, was in Melbourne's system before joining the Panthers on a train-and-trial deal that has since been upgraded to a full-time contract.

"As teammates, it's super-exciting and super-cool to see all the hard work they put in all year and throughout the pre-season to finally get that crack," Smith said.

Smith knows first-hand that Riki and Toelau could be on the cusp of something big now they've been confirmed as first-graders.

The prop made his own NRL debut during a loss to Wests Tigers ahead of game one in 2021, the first time Penrith had lost a host of players to Origin duty since surging to heavyweight status.

Three more NRL games came in 2022, before Smith cemented himself as a mainstay of the Panthers' 17 on their way to the 2023 premiership.

"I was lucky enough to make my debut throughout an Origin period, and looking back now I'm so grateful for the opportunity and where it's led to," Smith said.

"To be able to play more first grade is unreal. As soon as you get that taste of first grade, that's all you want.

"I can't wait to see what they do on the weekend, and then hopefully their careers kick on from there."

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