Based on a stellar pre-season and form at the back end of last year, Wests Tigers prop Tim Grant insists we’ll be hearing a lot more about “the other Watene-Zeleniak” in 2018.
Malakai Watene-Zelezniak, the 26-year-old elder brother of Penrith star Dallin, is one of the “journeymen” Grant said had arrived at the Wests Tigers with the goal of playing the best football of their careers.
After shining as a Panthers under 20s, Malakai went on his own journey and tried his hand at rugby union with the NSW Country Eagles in 2014.
After returning to Penrith and finally making his NRL debut last year he got a release to the Wests Tigers where he scored six tries in 13 impressive games.
“I was at the Panthers with Malakai … and then he missed the boat a little bit,” Grant told NRL.com
“To see where he is now compared to where he was back then is a massive transformation.
“Malakai has come back to training in great condition. I haven’t seen a guy as fit as him in a long time.
“He has dropped a lot of weight and in the fitness and speed drills at training he beats everyone.
“He is just so professional, and any young rookies coming through should be modelling their preparation on Malakai because he does everything right.
“I had a bit to do with Dallin at Penrith and I see similarities between the two in the way they leave no stone unturned and look after their bodies.”
Grant said Malakai was set for “a big year” to follow on from his late season form in 2017. If so, the headline writers may well be putting “MWZ” up in lights as well as “DWZ”.
“Malakai showed us all what he was capable of at the back end of last year,” Grant said.
“When he was at Penrith he was the next big thing and had all the wraps but didn’t get his break for various reasons.
“He went to New Zealand and then he played rugby, but I really think this is his break because he’s big and fit and fast. He has got everything you need.”
The comings and goings at the Tigers last year, and in the off-season, have been significant.
During 2017 there was the arrival of new coach Ivan Cleary and the departure of Jason Taylor, then the loss of Mitchell Moses. Aaron Woods and James Tedesco moved on at the end of the season. Benji Marshall has returned, Josh Reynolds is on board and leading forwards Ben Matulino, Russell Packer and Chris McQueen have also been acquired.
“The thing for us last year was that there was a lot of instability,” Grant said.
“We got a coach five or six weeks in and there were transfers and people coming and going, but we also learned plenty and a lot of young guys got some experience.
“We took a lot of top-four teams right to their limits, which was a good thing.”
Grant conceded that “only a skeleton of that 2017 team remains” in one respect, but he quickly added the flesh that had been put on the bones of that skeleton had him excited about the year ahead.
“Now we are all in it together. Josh Reynolds went through a bit at the Bulldogs, Chris McQueen has come in on the back of an injury. All of the guys want to be playing the best footy of their careers and they are putting in the work to do that.”