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The Roar


Luai clearly under pressure from Burton to be punted as Cleary’s Origin halves partner

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7th April, 2023
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The return of Latrell Mitchell and Tom Trbojevic from injury means there’ll be no room for Matt Burton in the NSW centres but he’s mounting a strong case to unseat Jarome Luai as Nathan Cleary’s halves partner.

Luai’s lack of a reliable kicking game was one of the factors behind the Blues’ surprise 2-1 series loss to Queensland last year and Burton has been kicking him off the park in the NRL this season. 

Because he plays alongside Cleary and Origin lock Isaah Yeo at Penrith, that relationship is seen as a major plus in Luai’s favour but Burton was a premiership-winning Panther as recently as 2021.

And last year he reunited with Cleary and Yeo with the Kangaroos in their successful defence of their World Cup crown in the UK.

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Burton has been the fulcrum of Canterbury’s attack this season and although they are still working out their combinations in a new-look side under rookie coach Cameron Ciraldo to hold a 3-3 record after the Good Friday loss to Souths, the 23-year-old five-eighth has been one of the form players in the NRL.

TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 09: Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai of the Blues celebrate after winning game one of the 2021 State of Origin series between the New South Wales Blues and the Queensland Maroons at Queensland Country Bank Stadium on June 09, 2021 in Townsville, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Luai, who represented Samoa at the World Cup, has been like many of his fellow Panthers – scratchy at times as the shortened off-season, the February showdown with St Helens in the World Club Challenge and injuries have resulted in two losses from four starts for a team which tasted defeat just four times all last year.


Burton’s kicking game is where he holds the most decisive edge over Luai in the race for the NSW No.6 jersey. 

The dominant playmaker at the Bulldogs ahead of halfback Kyle Flanagan, he has eaten up the metres, averaging 418m each game in kicks over the first five rounds while producing five forced line drop-outs. 

Cleary is also the main man at the Panthers when it comes to yardage off the boot with 469.5m and four repeat sets whereas Luai takes a back-seat role and has earned his team just 169m all up from four appearances with a solitary forced line drop-out on his tally.

Luai’s lack of influence with the boot was a telling factor in last year’s Origin series. 

The Queensland defenders were able to load up on Cleary at the end of each set, roughing him up after his kick or putting pressure on beforehand to render enough of them ineffective to stymie the Blues’ attack.

Cleary put boot to ball 51 times and Luai kicked on a paltry six occasions. Burton, who only played two of the three matches at centre, kicked in general play nine times.

If the Bulldog is brought into the halves this year, the Maroons will face a pick your poison scenario – rush up on Cleary to disadvantage the sport’s best tactical kicker or try to shut down Burton’s booming left boot which makes the knees of fullbacks and wingers violently wobble as the ball does the same as it makes it way back from a celestial orbit.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 30: Matt Burton of the Bulldogs kicks during the round eight NRL match between the Canterbury Bulldogs and the Sydney Roosters at Stadium Australia on April 30, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Matt Burton launches one of his towering kicks. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Luai and Cleary were two of seven players to play 80 minutes in all three games and the NSW five-eighth was hardly the passenger that his critics sometimes make him out to be.

He actually topped the line break assists count (and scored two of his own) with three alongside Maroons fullback Kalyn Ponga with Queensland skipper Daly Cherry-Evans (two) the only other player with more than one although Cleary came up with an equal series-high three try assists alongside Ponga with a couple coming from kicks.

Luai gets criticised for his defence which, while it can be haphazard at times, stacked up well against his fellow Origin halves – he missed seven tackles for the series while DCE had nine, Cleary botched six, as did Cameron Munster in his two appearances.

DCE was isolated by the Blues, having to make 17 one-on-one tackles across the three games while Luai and Cleary were forced to complete 10 each.

NSW coach Brad Fittler is known for his loyalty but also for the odd surprise selection and he is likely to be changing up his squad after last year’s failure when he sits down next month at the selection table in the lead-up to the May 27 clash at Adelaide on May 31. 

Luai has been an automatic selection alongside Cleary in the halves for the past two years, missing just the final match of 2021 due to a knee injury. 


He should no longer be considered a walk-up start unless he can string together an improved run of games over the next seven matches before the Blues team is chosen, starting with Saturday night’s home clash with Manly. 

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

For Panthers coach Ivan Cleary, he is looking for consistency across the board from his team after a season of loss, win, bye, loss before last Friday’s 41-point thumping of the struggling Raiders in Canberra.

“I don’t think we’ve really quite got what we want yet in terms of controlling the game. We’ve had good pieces of it here and there,” he said at his Friday captain’s run media conference.

“We’re still trying to find our feet. We haven’t really played two games the same, a bit like most teams.”

Cleary was engulfed in a minor media storm earlier this week when he was criticised for saying it was “good karma” after Jaeman Salmon scored the final try in their 53-12 flogging of Canberra in their first clash since Raiders coach Ricky Stuart controversially labelled the bench utility a “weak-gutted dog” late last season. 

There have been criticisms about Penrith being too big for their boots in recent seasons, some warranted – particularly some of the gloating at their post-grand final fan day last year, but Cleary was well entitled to jab back at Stuart after the Canberra coach’s histrionics. 


He said he’d neither read nor heard the latest criticisms and was clever enough not to fall into the trap of adding fuel to the flames.

“The people I talk to and the people I hang out with really like the club and are happy with what we do,” he said.

“So I feel like we’ve certainly performed over a number of years now so that’s one thing.

“The work I see the boys do consistently within the community, after games for example, we’re always obviously keeping an eye on it because I guess that’s my job, but for the most part I’m really proud of our club and our boys.”