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Opinion

Luai can lift Tigers out of doldrums but mega offer continues vicious cycle of overpaying for recruits

23rd November, 2023
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23rd November, 2023
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Wests Tigers fans are a hardy bunch. They’ve put up with a lot over the years. 

Coming off two wooden spoons they are desperate for the team’s fortunes to turn around.

So is new coach Benji Marshall and the various factions of the management who occasionally stop making threats at each other to make decisions to try to get the club up the ladder. 

Making a mammoth offer for Panthers five-eighth Jarome Luai is the latest high-risk play from the perennial NRL strugglers with a rookie coach, fractured boardroom, interim head of football and longest finals drought in the competition. 

Luai is a very good player, a three-time premiership-winner, a State of Origin representative and a key member of Samoa’s rise to prominence in the international arena. 

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - FEBRUARY 09: West Tigers assistant coach Benji Marshall looks on ahead of the NRL trial match between New Zealand Warriors and Wests Tigers at Mt Smart Stadium on February 09, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Benji Marshall. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

But he is not in the same stratosphere as the elite playmakers.

He gets unfairly treated by some critics who say he is little more than the Robin to Nathan Cleary’s Batman. 

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Luai is a fine running five-eighth. A secondary playmaker whose main value is a combination of ad-lib “eyes-up” footy with a dash of running set plays. 

Many of the tries he’s scored or conjured up down the left edge for Penrith over the years have not just simply been instinct – he runs the shapes well and fed the likes of Viliame Kikau, Matt Burton and Stephen Crichton a significant portion of quality attacking ball.

But he has some deficiencies with his kicking game and on-field organising ability which prevent him from being included alongside Cleary, Mitchell Moses, Adam Reynolds, Daly Cherry-Evans, Jahrome Hughes and Nicho Hynes as among the very best of the NRL’s on-field generals.

Which is why Penrith have deemed him worth a deal around $850,000 judging by the current player market.

As always, it only takes one higher offer to inflate a player’s value and, as they’ve done several times in recent seasons, the Wests Tigers (aka the free agent’s wet dream) are bumping up Luai’s value with an offer reportedly worth as much as $4.5 million over four seasons from 2025 onwards.

You’d want to get a lot of bang if you are dishing out that kind of buck.

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Luai will undoubtedly be a major plus for the Tigers if he opts for Concord ahead of Penrith or other suitors such as Canterbury or the Dragons but will he give them full value for marquee money?

All evidence from his career thus far is to the contrary.

It’s a familiar tale for the Tigers who have outlaid massive sums on their spine in recent times for new recruits like Josh Reynolds, Moses Mbye and to re-sign Luke Brooks. 

None of them went even close to fulfilling their value. 

Marshall is a legend of the club and could indeed make it as a coach but by offering Luai a huge contract and the possibility of taking over as chief playmaker, he’s making a rookie error.

It’s another quick fix for the Tigers, an endless cycle they’ve been mired in for more than a decade since their last playoff run in 2011. 

There appears little long-term investment in the vast junior base the club enjoys in Sydney’s south-west which takes a back seat to the endless parade of high-profile recruits who are past their prime – James Roberts, Tyrone Peachey, Russell Packer, Ben Matulino, Chris McQueen and James Tamou are among a long list of veterans who played like they joined the Tigers because they had no other option.

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Promising Luai the No.7 jersey after a season of Aidan Sezer providing stopgap reliability alongside young prospects Jayden Sullivan and Latu Fainu is what desperate clubs do.

Jarome Luai of the Blues looks to pass the ball during game two of the State of Origin series between the Queensland Maroons and the New South Wales Blues at Suncorp Stadium on June 21, 2023 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Jarome Luai looks to pass. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Down the road at Belmore, the Bulldogs have made all sorts of promises in recent years to get players in the door – at various times Will Hopoate, Nick Meaney, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Nick Cotric were lured in for the promise of playing in their preferred position of fullback or centre before being shunted back to the wing.

The Panthers have already indicated they won’t get into an auction for Luai’s services, which is a wise move.

A team like the Roosters is often lampooned for supposedly rorting the salary cap but the secret to their success is not overpaying for stars, even ones they have on the books.

They didn’t think Latrell Mitchell was worth top dollar when they only needed him to be a centre so that was one of the main reasons why he ended up at Souths a few years back.

The Joey Manu situation for them could play out the same way – unless they can offer James Tedesco’s No.1 jersey as an incentive down the line, it will be hard to convince the Kiwi star to stick around for less than he could command on the open market.

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Joseph Manu of the Roosters is tackled during the round six NRL match between the Melbourne Storm and Sydney Roosters at AAMI Park on April 06, 2023 in Melbourne, Australia

(Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images)

St George Illawarra coach Shane Flanagan will likely dangle the keys to WIN Stadium and Kogarah Oval to Manu if a seven-figure salary and the fullback’s role is not enough to convince him to switch. 

For the Panthers, they already have the nucleus of their premiership squad re-signed long term in Cleary, Isaiah Yeo, Brian To’o, James Fisher-Harris, Dylan Edwards, Moses Leota and Liam Martin.

It would be nice for them to keep Luai around as they try to convert their three titles into a true dynasty for the rest of this decade.

But as has been shown at various stages when the likes of Sean O’Sullivan and Jack Cogger have stepped into the halves to partner Cleary, they need a complementary player in that role, not a dominant one. 

And those players can be found for a lot less than a million-plus per year.

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