They dominated throughout the junior grades and now Penrith coach Ivan Cleary is hoping his son Nathan and five-eighth Jarome Luai can do the same at NRL level as the Panthers aim to capitalise on the success of their junior development program.
Cleary and Luai have been playing together in the halves since they were 16 year-olds in Penrith’s Harold Mathews team.
They progressed together to the SG Ball Under 18 and Holden Cup Under 20 squads, along with a number of other players now in the club’s NRL roster.
The duo led the Panthers to NYC glory in the 2015 with a side that included current Penrith star James Fisher-Harris, Dylan Edwards, Moses Leota, Tyrone May, Brent Naden and Kade Ellis, as well as Canterbury second-rower Corey Harawira-Naera.
However, Cleary’s progression has outstripped Luai’s and he has made 79 NRL appearances in the halves for Penrith while establishing himself as the NSW State of Origin halfback.
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In comparison, Luai has played 17 NRL matches in the past two years, mostly off the bench unless Cleary or five-eighth James Maloney were unavailable.
With the departure of Maloney to Catalans, Ivan Cleary said Nathan and Luia would now be his first choice halves combination.
“They haven’t played together in the halves regularly for a couple of years now but it was always good to see those guys play,” Cleary said after Penrith’s final training session in Bega ahead of Saturday’s EISS Super Saphire Trial Tribute match against Parramatta.
“They have a special combination because they came through the juniors together so now we will see if they can handle it with the big boys.”
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Panthers assistant coach Trent Barrett was at the club when the likes of Cleary, Luai and Fisher-Harris were coming through the junior ranks before taking on the Manly job from 2016 to 2018 and he believes Penrith’s development program is set to pay dividends.
With such a young squad, Barrett said the Panthers had recruited hooker Api Koroisau from the Sea Eagles, former Sydney Roosters prop Zane Tetevano and ex-Cronulla utility Kurt Capewell to add some experience to the roster.
“We have got a lot of country boys here and we have got a lot of local juniors,” Barrett said.
“They are a really tight group of blokes and they all live out at Penrith, which makes it easy, and they have all played together for a long time.
“Bringing in blokes like Api, Zane and Kurt adds a little bit more leadership, which we probably need because it is such a young team. They are still learning but they are like sponges and keen as mustard to learn.
“It’s a credit to the recruitment work by [recruitment manager] Jim Jones. He has done a really good job and he looks after the country kids. He doesn’t bring them down too early, he usually waits until they have finished school and are ready to come but he keeps an eye on them.”
The Panthers players have conducted school visits, delivered the NRL’s State of Mind program in Pambula and had dinner with emergency services volunteers and members of the army at Bemboka Showgrounds during their trip to the fire-ravaged NSW South Coast.
Cleary said there were still Round 1 positions up for grabs in Saturday’s trial against the Eels but he was happy with his young squad and their preparation for the season.
“Clearly the mandate for our club is to grow our own so you are going to get that youthful look a lot,” Cleary said.
“We have got a bunch of guys here that we believe in and think are going to be around for a long time so we are looking forward to seeing how they develop this year.”