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Smart Signings: Should the Panthers cut ties with Luai - and could it set up a superstar return?

31st October, 2023
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31st October, 2023
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With the Finals over and the November 1 contract deadline passed, we can officially declare the NRL’s silly season open.

That means the return of our Smart Signings column, where we dive deep into the recruitment issues facing each club. We use stats and tactics, while ignoring rumour and conjecture, to determine who NRL clubs should be targeting to address their biggest weaknesses, using players that are actually available to them.

The idea for this column has always been to find ways that clubs can improve – but how do you improve on perfection? This was how we opened Smart Signings: Panthers last year, and if anything, they’ve got better since.

Penrith have won three titles back to back and Ivan Cleary absolutely does not need our help in finding players in the market. Indeed, they have rarely looked to the market at all, tending instead to promote from within.

Every year they lose players, every year they replace them. Last year’s angle was based around this year coming, with Stephen Crichton the big out, but the evidence of previous seasons is that they will look to replace their big names with internal candidates or rehabilitations.

After 2022, it was Api Koroisau who departed, but back then, it was already clear to see that Mitch Kenny and Soni Luke were the answer. By the end it was Kenny alone, and though he is not in the class of Koroisau, he certainly did well. Luke Sommerton, who debuted in 2023, is also in the pipeline.

In the back row, Viliame Kikau departed with his place filled the elevation of Scott Sorensen to the run on side and Lindsay Smith and Zac Hosking onto the bench. That seems to be sorted instantly.

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This year, there is a similar dynamic at play to fill the gap left by Crichton. The internal candidate might well be one of Taylan May, returning from injury, or if he goes to the wing, Sunia Turuva – currently at centre for Fiji in the Pacific Championships – moving inside. 

The rookie option would be Jesse McLean, though his debut last year suggested that it would be bold move, but who played the bulk of his NSW Cup in 2023 in that role.

The external option is Paul Alamoti, one of the most touted rookies ahead of 2023 but burned by the all-round failings of the Bulldogs. In a better system, with better players around him, it’s easy to see a world where he thrives and becomes the player that everyone who saw him play reggies thinks he can be.

It’s clear that, to find a position that the Panthers truly will be looking at, we need to go to 2025.

The next cab off the rank in the salary cap squeeze is Jarome Luai, who is now officially exploring his options following the November 1 deadline, and whom one would imagine is fielding a lot of better (financially at least) options from other clubs, namely the Tigers and Bulldogs.

The big question for Cleary might be whether it is worth paying the cash to keep him on. Luai is an exceptional player, but he’s not irreplaceable, as was proven late in the year by Jack Cogger – not to mention by the Panthers themselves, who threw the cheque book at Dylan Edwards, the perfect player for the way they want to play footy, first.

That’s not a criticism of Luai, by the way: he is perhaps an even better player than he is allowed to be at Penrith, where he is asked to complement Nathan Cleary rather than run the show himself. At the Dogs, he might immediately become the halfback, like he is for Samoa.

So what could Penrith do to replace him? Luai’s best skill is hard to quantify because it’s so linked to his role as spark plug on the left, and to his personality, as a general wind-up merchant for the opposition.

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(Photo by Jess Hornby/Getty Images)

As five eighths go, he’s really not that remarkable: Cody Walker, Cam Munster, Ezra Mam, Dylan Brown,Tom Dearden and Luke Keary all outrank him on creative metrics, and his running stats are nothing to write home about at all.

Interestingly, if one takes the admittedly limited sample size of Daine Laurie- whom the Panthers have picked up as a depth option – from his time as a five eighth late in the year, the statistical profile isn’t that different – and Laurie was doing that for the team that ran dead last. 

Imagine if he was somewhere good, with a lot more ball. If, say, Luai goes down injured again, then we might find out awfully quickly if the second coming of Laurie at the Panthers is a serviceable option.

Down in reggies, there’s Jack Cole, who only moved to 6 late in the year when Kurt Falls was forced to play 7 so that Cogger could move up, and at just 20, it would be brave to throw him in.

Of the players also available for chats, Mam and Dearden are the most obvious options for truly elite playmakers, though they would likely cost the same as just retaining Luai. 

For the first of many times that he will feature in Smart Signings, Jack Welsby would be the absolute best choice, as he could offer all the guile, x factor and, yes, irritation of Luai with an equally proven record of doing it on the biggest stage. He’s available for a transfer fee for 2025 and Penrith know exactly how good he is.

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If we assume that Luai either takes the cash available now – and who could blame him – and that the Panthers need someone with proven quality to take over at a lower price point, they could go one of two ways.

Either they take a stopgap until Cole or someone else is ready for 2026 or they opt for someone who might take less than market value to play in a highly-productive team.

The stopgap option could be very appealing for Luke Keary, especially if the Roosters’ salary cap squeeze/desire to sign Welsby forces their hand, or even Kieran Foran, if his body is up to it.

In the proven quality stakes, a straight swap for Adam Doueihi from the Wests Tigers would be a huge play for the Panthers, who could pick up a guy who hits all the key areas: undoubted potential, undervalued due to injuries, coming from a bad system. He’s got versatility too, having played a lot of centre, and is a much bigger body than Luai.

Should he return from his ACL and get close to his best form, Penrith could swoop at a huge discount on what Luai is asking for. 

In truth the smartest signing in a highly structured system such as Cleary’s is always to keep the players you have, but as has been seen in recent years, that isn’t always possible. 

Luai might take the decision out of their hands, and if he does, they don’t likely have the immediately obvious next man up that they have had with Kikau, Koroisau and even Crichton. 

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The absolute, purest chaos theory would point that Isaiya Katoa, who was the next in line, is available for 2026. Keary for a year then a return for the prodigal son of Western Sydney? It would keep the NRL media going for years.

The Tongan international joined the Dolphins with his pathway blocked by the Luai-Cleary partnership, but is a local junior, having come through the Glenmore Park Brumbies club in Penrith.

If Penrith wanted to play the long game – and if Katoa didn’t hold a grudge about his exit the first time – they could make a serious play for a talent that was theirs all along.

By the time his contract with the Dolphins is available for negotiation, this time next year, he’ll still be just 21 years old but might have close to 50 games of NRL and Test footy under his belt.

Currently, they’re evenly split across five eighth and halfback, which could also provide an interesting pivot towards the style that the Panthers played late in 2023, with Cleary running more. Keary, too, could play that role in the interim.

Not since Koroisau and Kurt Capewell arrived in 2020 have Penrith gone out and expressly signed a player to slot straight into the starting 13. It’s not their style.

If Luai left, it might have to return as an idea – and it might suit the next generation of the Panthers down to the ground.

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