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Panthers five-eighth Jarome Luai.

James Maloney made a career out of getting under the skin of his opponents but his heir apparent Jarome Luai is adamant he's not deliberately out to follow suit.

Luai was rated the third-best sledger in the game behind Josh McGuire and Josh Reynolds according to's recent players' poll, with 66 players across the NRL casting votes for that category.

Luai, 23, spent two seasons as Maloney's understudy at the Panthers before the veteran playmaker's move to the Super League last year.

Known for his larrikin nature and ability to ruffle a few feathers during his career, Maloney polled 15% of votes in 2019 with Luai (6%) making up for his absence this season.

"I was a bit surprised getting in the top three, I think some of the boys said they voted for me," Luai said.

"I'm a bit cheeky around the club so it's pretty funny to see that but I don't think I'm that bad out there on the field."

Asked what was among his best sledges, Luai said "You'd probably have to beep out a few words" before referring to the Maloney comparisons.

"That's what the coach and boys have been saying as well," Luai said.

"But again, I don't think I'm that bad."

Titans v Panthers - Round 11

Nevertheless, Maloney's influence on Luai has been evident for the Panthers at the halfway point of the year with the club on track for their best finish to a season since their premiership-winning run in 2003.

Reducing the external noise and handling the pressure that may come at the crunch stage of the year for the Panthers – who are one of the least experienced sides of the competition – may just prove to be their next hurdle.

"We've got a young group with a lot of experienced players as well that keep us grounded," Luai said.

"We're just enjoying our footy."

Meanwhile, the recall of Panthers winger Malakai Watene-Zelezniak is five months in the making after he was named to replace Dean Whare for Sunday's clash with the Titans.

The 28-year-old hasn't played a game since the pre-season trials in February due to the COVID-19 pandemic shut down but was confident fitness wouldn't be an issue for the Queensland trip.

"The scrimmages have helped a lot to get a bit of game time," Watene-Zelezniak said.

"It's probably not the same as the 13-a-side but it gets that physical and wrestle component [done] and match fitness.

Cleary moves out of Maloney’s shadow

"A few boys have had a few injuries and it's up to us to come in and take their spot and continue the roll we're building as a team.

"That's the best thing about our squad, we've got a lot of depth."

The Panthers will travel to the Gold Coast on Sunday morning for the first of three trips to Queensland scheduled for Ivan Cleary's men in the second half of the season after avoiding travel outside of NSW previously.

"We're already starting to get our heads around that and trying to put a routine in place for that day," Luai 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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