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How fatherhood helped Luai through down times

Panthers half Jarome Luai experienced the highest and lowest points of his young NRL career in the space of a fortnight, but it was his newborn son that helped him forget about the hard times.

The then-21-year-old exploded into the public consciousness in round 17 last season in his run-on debut and just his second NRL appearance.

Luai starred with two tries as an injury- and Origin-ravaged Penrith stunned the more-fancied Warriors 36-6. With Penrith still short on troops, Luai started the next two games but the Panthers lost both heavily and he suffered a serious ankle injury in a 50-18 round-19 loss to Brisbane.

The torn syndesmosis and torn lateral ligaments required surgery, effectively ending his season just a fortnight after his breakout game.

"I experienced the best of both worlds," a refreshed-looking Luai laughed when NRL.com asked him to reflect on the tumultuous fortnight.

"That week I had a pretty good performance, probably the highlight of my career. To then get a season-ending injury two weeks later was pretty devastating.

"Who knows what could have been if I didn't get injured."

Panthers halfback Jarome Luai.
Panthers halfback Jarome Luai. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

Luai credited the tight-knit team at Penrith as well as the coaching and rehab staff at the club for keeping his spirits up, but more than anything it was developments at home that prevented him sitting around feeling sorry for himself.

"It was pretty tough, but I'd just had a son [Israel]," Luai said.

"He was only a month or two old when I got injured. He took my mind off a lot of things. It was sort of good timing, I sort of dealt with it that way. I was hopping around the house trying to help the missus out!

"Just hanging in there and getting through the rehab but I'm here [back at training] now and can't wait til the season kicks off."

Baby Israel is around eight months old and still keeping his parents busy.

"He took his first steps recently which is pretty early for eight months, he was only crawling like two weeks before," Luai said.

Luai joked that, with a mother who plays basketball and a father who plays rugby league, Israel already has options building for a future sporting career.

"Fatherhood, a lot of us in the squad are experiencing it. Going through it together is pretty cool – we've got a lot to talk about in the sheds!" he laughed.

Luai was back on his feet by the start of pre-season and is now feeling confident and comfortable physically.

He also re-signed with the squad, despite the fact that as a promising young half he'd have had options elsewhere to cement a first-grade spot sooner than where he is, biding time behind Nathan Cleary and James Maloney.

Nathan Cleary and James Maloney.
Nathan Cleary and James Maloney. ©Gregg Porteous/N

"Penrith's my home so I'm living the childhood dream, playing for my local club and getting to do it with the boys I came through the grades with," Luai said.

"Jimmy is one of the best halves I can learn from. He's experienced it all, won premierships, he knows how to close out games. If there was anyone to wait behind, for me it would be Jimmy.

"He's been taking me under his wing this pre-season. He's been a real good role model for me, I've learned a lot off him."

Although Luai has just four NRL caps, he boasts three senior Test appearances for Samoa (in the 2017 World Cup) following his Junior Kiwis representation.

He said that, despite being born in Sydney and spending his whole life in NSW, his Pasifika heritage would likely dominate any future representative decisions ahead of Origin and Kangaroos jersey, if he got the chance.

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"I think I would represent either Samoa or New Zealand. I sort of feel comfortable around those cultures," he said.

"I grew up around Kiwi people and Samoan people through my mum and my dad. Hopefully somewhere down the track I get that opportunity.

"It was a very proud moment for me (to represent the Junior Kiwis) and to then go to the World Cup with the Samoan boys.

"I hadn't even played an NRL game yet - to then chuck on a Samoa jersey with the NRL players was a real good opportunity for me. That helped me the following year to then play NRL, I sort of had that confidence already. I've been really lucky to get those opportunities early on in my career."

Luai's decision to stay at Penrith earned plenty of praise from close mate Nathan Cleary, who came through the grades alongside Luai from the age of 15.

"It's a credit to Jarome, he's a really humble guy and to know he can learn off Jimmy especially then take over his role once Jimmy retires, it's a really good show of faith in the club and what's going on here," Cleary said.

"He's a local junior, he gets along really well with the group that we've got and we're really lucky to have him.

"He's been on fire [at training], he's put on a bit of size as well. Just some of the stuff he can do on the field, you saw in the Warriors game last year. He's done that all through the juniors, he's an absolute freak and skilful as anything."