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Luai's long game: Rival knockbacks reunite Penrith prodigies

Jarome Luai could have kicked stones or tried to kick on elsewhere.

"Jokingly, if I had a dollar for every time Shane Richardson and Mark Ellison rang me trying to get Jarome to go to Souths I'd be a wealthy man," his manager Darryl Mather laughs.

Like plenty of Penrith prodigies in recent times, interest such as Richardson's – confirmed to by the recent Rabbitohs powerbroker – has been consistent from competing clubs.

Luai's not alone in that regard. Teammates like Matt Burton, Charlie Staines and Stephen Crichton are just the latest to emerge on the radars of NRL rivals.

Not at all surprising given Luai was considered the better catch between he and Nathan Cleary during junior days that saw them pairing together from the age of 14.

After watching Cleary first crack, then begin to dominate first grade, State of Origin and land an estimated million dollar a year Panthers deal, Luai is finally back beside his good mate at Penrith's scrumbase.

Now 23, but still with just 34 NRL games to his name, Luai has played fullback, centre, lock, hooker and both halves roles before making James Maloney's old No.6 jumper his own.

Panthers v Eels - Round 18

He hasn't missed a game in Penrith's charge toward the minor premiership, which would be all-but sealed with a win over western Sydney rivals Parramatta on Friday.

His 15 try assists polls him in equal second across the NRL and significantly, Luai's 12 forced drop-outs rank him seventh for the season.

Instead of kicking up a fuss when Maloney's 2018 arrival meant another two years of waiting for Luai, the St Mary's junior put boot to ball.

Repeatedly. Early in the morning. Late at night, his dad Martin fetching footballs all the while.

Attacking the weakest part of his game with the gusto Cleary has been renowned for, ensuring their eventual first grade reunion has been a fruitful one.

"Jarome made a lot of rep sides and they were both in our system from age 14," Panthers assistant and renowned juniors coach Cameron Ciraldo said.

"We knew early on that they'd both be great players but Nath developed a bit quicker.

"[Luai] starred in the under 20s and would've seen Nathan playing first grade for two years before he got a crack. That would've been hard to stay patient.

"Then sitting behind Jimmy Maloney, he was smart about that time he spent waiting in the wings. He was just a sponge, got everything he could from him.

"I'd say he learnt a lot more about the game in that way than if we'd just thrown him in the deep end. He certainly didn't drop his lip or look for an opportunity somewhere else.

Panthers use Eels loss to their advantage

"How Maloney controlled a game with his own kicking game, that would be the biggest thing I've noticed Jarome pick up over the last 12-18 months. He has that ability to finish sets now and that compliments Nathan.

"Coming through Jarome could blitz a defence but the end of sets probably wasn't a real focus for him, but for him to learn that from Jimmy, it's very valuable for him and us.

"The last few months, he, Nathan and Matt Burton are probably last off the paddock pretty consistently.

"Jarome probably hasn't been that guy before, but this year we're seeing those extras being put in. They're always cooking up some form of kicking comp or trying to terrorise the wingers."

Luai's popularity around Panthers HQ rings true every time he or Brian To'o fire up what Ciraldo can only describe as "their style of music" on a 15-kilo, omnipresent boombox.

"Loud, cheeky and energetic, just like his football", Luai's feet are firmly on the ground whenever he steps outside the Panthers bubble.

He and partner Bailey are raising two-year-old son Israel at his childhood Mt Druitt home.

They'll only move out when the family's mortgage is paid off, with Luai hoping his Panthers paychecks will make that a reality by this time next year.

Penrith officials are well aware they have a potential career-long halves partner for Cleary in Luai.

Just as they know Burton holds just as much promise, with negotiations around his re-signing ongoing while the Bulldogs lead interest in the latest boy wonder from Dubbo.

Both come off-contract in 2021 and can field official interest from rivals from November 1.

But if ever Burton, or any other young player cooling their heels on the fringes of first grade, wanted to see the benefits of a slow burn, they need only look to Luai.

"Too many young players want to get into first grade before they're ready," Mathers says.

"But if a player peters out at age 23, 24 because he can't handle the expectation, you haven't helped him and you haven't helped anyone.

"As I said Richo was a big fan of Jarome when he was doing some work with the New Zealand Rugby League (when Luai was Junior Kiwis captain).

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"But I always said to him, 'no he's a Mount Druitt boy, he's a Panther'.

"We're talking 30 phone calls from Richo but Penrith have always had him in their plans, Gus [ex-Panthers manager Phil Gould] was always adament 'you're not giving him to Richo!'

"I applaud Jarome for his patience in waiting for his opportunities at the Panthers. He's played the long game and now he's reaping the benefits."

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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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