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Panthers half Jarome Luai.

Jarome Luai was a young schoolboy coming through the ranks of a well-known rugby league nursery when Trent Barrett showed up during his first coaching stint at the Panthers.

Alongside Barrett was fellow assistant coach Cameron Ciraldo, who gathered the next bunch of talent at Patrician Brothers Blacktown and ran them through a series of training drills. 

Barrett, who returned to the Panthers in November in an assistant role under Ivan Cleary, took a teenaged Luai through a kicking drill.

"I haven't spoken to him about it because I don't think I did very well that day," Luai told

"He picked me out of a group and took me through some kicking plays and I thought I went crap. I was starstruck and it was all too surreal for me. I'll never forget it."

Cleary makes Whare Nines captain

Six years on and former Blues and Kangaroos No.6 Barrett looms as a key figure in Luai 's bid to cement the No.6 jersey vacated by James Maloney's move to Super League.

The battle for starting role will come down to Luai, Matt Burton and Tyrone May, who has been reinstated after missing the 2019 season under the NRL's no-fault stand down policy.

"I was still battling for it last year even though Jimmy was here, that's always been my mindset," Luai said.

"But this pre-season it's been different in a good way, training in the five-eighth role and with Baz (Barrett) coming in.

"Having him here now and seeing how he thinks. He draws up all these plays and is a big asset to the young spine.

Best plays of the Auckland Nines

"With Nath (Cleary) and Api (Koroisau) controlling the ship, it's about me playing eyes-up and what's in front of me."

Luai will use this weekend's NRL Nines tournament in Perth as the perfect audition to kick-start his halves quest.

The 23-year-old had his first taste in the shortened format during Samoa's strong World Cup Nines campaign last October.

"Playing what I see in front of me is my go-to and a lot of the young boys who get a crack will be given some freedom to throw the ball around," Luai said.  

"That was cool, it was my first time playing Nines ever and overall a good experience – lots of space and not as manay bigger bodies."

Several former internationals are coming out of retirement to play in the Nines but the Panthers won't follow suit, with Luai saying "we're going there to win it".

"Whether it's a small warm-up drill, training, playing in the trials or Nines… we want to be winners in everything," he said.

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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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