Panthers five-eighth Jarome Luai is confident he can renew his high school halves partnership with Sean O’Sullivan after Nathan Cleary was ruled out of Thursday night’s season opener against Manly.
The Panthers took the cautious approach on Tuesday by confirming Cleary will miss at least the opening three rounds of the season following shoulder surgery last October.
It came as a surprise to the team, according to Luai, who was adamant Cleary was closing in on a round one return.
The Panthers co-captain will now aim for a round four return against South Sydney in the 2021 grand final rematch.
“It's come as a surprise to the playing group but obviously Nath and the physios have made the best call for him and the longevity for the year,” Luai said on Tuesday.
“Nath’s a professional and is probably the most diligent guys I’ve ever met. He was going to do everything he could’ve done to get out there in round one.
“We’re going to have to move forward now for these first couple of rounds and do our best to get the job done without him.”
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While loss of Cleary is an early-season blow for the defending premiers, Luai was looking forward to reuniting with O’Sullivan after the pair played together as teenagers in high school.
Luai was adamant O’Sullivan could handle the high-pressure situation of replacing Cleary in the halves and it would allow him to focus on his normal role in the side.
“There’s no real expectations [on O’Sullivan], he’s come into the pre-season and done an awesome job,” Luai said.
“We’ve got a lot of faith in him, he’s a good bloke and we’re all ready to put our body on the line for him. It doesn’t really change my role too much at all.”
Panthers fullback Dylan Edwards, who missed the side's two pre-season trial matches, said they had proven they could win without Cleary in previous years and were confident of taking down Manly without the star halfback.
The Panthers recorded five wins and three losses without Cleary, who was injured and on representative duty, for eight games last year.
“It’s not a one-man side, we all do our job and have got to perform well to get the job done,” Edwards said.
“We’ve done it before without Nathan, it doesn’t get any easier missing someone of his calibre but we’re good to go.
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“It’s great to have someone of Sean’s calibre to step in. we’ve got a genuine half to step in to take that roll.
“It’s a tough role to steer a team around but he’s got a good temperament for it and is talking well and performing well at training.”
Match: Panthers v Sea Eagles
Round 1 -
Venue: BlueBet Stadium, Penrith