Brothers embrace new Panthers-Tigers rivalry
Mid-season Wests Tigers recruit Malakai Watene-Zelezniak admits it was a tough decision to leave the Penrith Panthers but the opportunity to further his career made the offer too good to refuse.
After making his NRL Telstra Premiership debut back in Round 6 alongside brother Dallin, the return of Waqa Blake and Peta Hiku from a club imposed suspension meant the 25-year-old went back down the pecking order despite a strong performance against the Rabbitohs.
It was a special moment for the brothers in April with Malakai setting up Dallin on the left edge for a four-pointer in front of more than 100 family members and friends who attended the clash at Pepper Stadium.
The St Clair junior said the decision to depart the club he'd been at since 2009 was made easier after achieving the goal of playing alongside his brother at the top level.
"That will always be the highlight of my career, I honestly don't think anything could top that," Malakai told NRL.com.
"To go out on the field with Dal was something I will always remember.
"Dal and I are pretty close and we like to talk about our career and personal lives all the time so we tell each other everything and had a good chat about [the opportunity at the Tigers].
"All the boys at Penrith were happy for me leaving because they knew it was a good opportunity for me to further my career."
Malakai admitted watching his brother transition into first grade and onto the international stage at a much younger age raised some doubts about whether he had what it took to do the same despite being four years older.
Wests Tigers coach Ivan Cleary put the utility into the starting side a fortnight after his move – again against the Bunnies – in a show of immediate confidence in the new signing.
"Trying to push for my debut over the years there was plenty of doubt, but I had him (Dallin) and a good support system with my wife and parents pushing me anytime I felt down or when I thought my dream or goal wasn't achievable," Malakai said.
"Before I left I sat down and had a chat to Hook (Panthers coach Anthony Griffin) and he was happy for me too. We got along really well and he developed my game to another level which I'm grateful for."
While the Round 22 clash between the Wests Tigers and Panthers at ANZ Stadium has been dubbed "Cleary v Cleary" with coach Ivan taking on son Nathan, there is now another pair of family members set to go toe-to-toe for the first time in their lives apart from their backyard battles.
"It was actually pretty funny… Dal and I took our phones out as soon as we found out I was definitely coming to the Tigers and checked what round we were playing each other," Malakai said.
"Both of us are excited to hopefully be on the same field as each other, it might be the opposite side at this stage but we both said we owe it to our family, our clubs and teammates to give 100 percent.
"I've settled in [at the Tigers] really well, the boys here made me feel welcome and it's always nerve-racking and a bit scary moving clubs because you don't know what to expect or most of the boys.
"I knew ET (Elijah Taylor) and Tim Grant from Penrith so that helped a lot."
Panthers winger Dallin said the Round 22 clash could present more difficulties for his former coach Ivan taking on his 19-year-old son than the battle between himself and Malakai.
"It's probably a bit more awkward for Nathan because he still lives with his dad and might get kicked out for the week," Dallin laughed.
"I have high praise for Ivan, he gave me my debut and helped me take my game to the next level. Ivan will be good for Mal because he'll bring the best out in him."
Despite now being in opposing jerseys for the rest of the season and beyond, Dallin insisted nothing would change off the field for the pair with the family now ready to embrace both clubs in Sydney's West.
"He (Malakai) always comes to my games and I always go to his so I'll keep supporting him, might even have to wear a Tigers jersey," he joked.
"I was just happy we got a game together and I know it's the best thing for him at this time. I'm missing him but the Tigers have gained something special there."