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Jarome Luai has made the big move for himself – now he has to make sure that the story isn’t all about him

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16th December, 2023
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The off-season’s longest-running saga is over, with the confirmation that Jarome Luai is, after all, set to swap top for bottom by leaving the Penrith Panthers to take up an estimated $6m contract at the Wests Tigers.

It’s a move replete with narratives, and one that can’t help but cause controversy: few things drive more clicks in rugby league land than Luai, the NRL’s leading villain, and the Tigers, the ultimate basket case.

All the story needs now is for someone to ask Latrell Mitchell what he thinks of it and the trifecta of traffic will be complete.

Beyond the headlines, this is a serious move with consequences that will ripple across the game, on the field and off it – so let’s take a cycle through them.

For the Tigers, this is a huge coup. Having gone through what they will hope is their last big boardroom farrago earlier this week, they couldn’t have asked for a better way to draw a line under the Lee Hagipantelis/Justin Pascoe era.

Shane Richardson gets his statement signing, and in the process, essentially creates the conditions where 2024 can be a free hit because everything will be cast as making room for Jarome in 2025.

It doesn’t matter, really, that this deal was almost certainly negotiated by the ancient regime and, in many ways, could be seen as the parting gift of Pascoe to the club. It’s a win for the new guys.

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One would expect that Benji Marshall is the single biggest factor, given that Luai idolised him as a child and will have made the move to play under his hero.

Going into his first year as a head coach, it’s a huge win and pretty much guarantees that he will last the year, even if they were to lose every game. On field results won’t matter that much is there is the feeling that Benji is building something, and that includes Luai.

For Penrith, however, this is a huge challenge. They will have anticipated the departure of key players for salary cap reasons, and have so far been able to backfill from their own systems or attract players into the club on cut price deals.

There comes a point at which the outgoing players is too big to replace. Guys like Viliame Kikau, Matt Burton and Kurt Capewell were losses, but not in key positions, and while it remains to be seen how they will replace Stephen Crichton and Spencer Leniu, the same applies to them too.

Api Koroisau was the big question, but the club already had Mitch Kenny as an above average back-up to take over, as well as Soni Luke coming through as an attacking option. Api, too, was 29 and would have needed replacing soon rather than later anyway.

None of these things apply to Luai, who is in his prime and a key cog of the Panthers attacking machine.

GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 19: Jarome Luai of Panthers is challenged by Jacob Alick of Titans during the round 25 NRL match between Gold Coast Titans and Penrith Panthers at Cbus Super Stadium on August 19, 2023 in Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)

Jarome Luai. (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)

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Tactically, he might be the third wheel behind Nathan Cleary and Isaah Yeo, but the five eighth is the most deluxe option possible in that area and a real gamebreaker in tight matches.

Penrith must now use 2024 to prepare the ground for a new guy – most likely Jack Cole – or go to the market for another guy. Knowing the Panthers, they’ll put their own kid in.

Culturally, Luai might be even harder to replace. His Chief Energy Officer nickname is no joke, as the CEO is consistently the most upbeat and positive member of the dressing room, and the leader of the Mt Druitt/St Marys group that has dominated the sheds.

Now he’s going, Critta has already left and so has Spencer. Someone pray for Brian To’o.

Finally, there’s the man himself. In the sheds after the Grand Final win, Luai described his motivations in footy as ‘success or family’.

He’s had plenty of success on the field at the Panthers and will now have plenty off it with a monster contract from the Tigers, and his family will be set up for life with the money he will make.

Success might not be measured in Premierships anymore – especially when you’ve got three by the age of 26 – and instead, might be measured by personal impact and legacy.

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Luai has forever been cast the second guy, not surprising when he’s stood next to Cleary, the best player of his generation.

But when the five eighth has been able to step out of his halfback’s shadow, he has shown repeatedly that he can do it, both for the Panthers when Cleary has been injured or suspended and for Samoa, who he powered to a World Cup Final, defeating Tonga and England on the way.

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)

Now, especially if he plays 7 for the Tigers, all the pressure, all the responsibility and all of the risk is on Luai.

Much as he has been portrayed as a villain and cast off as overhyped, Luai is a serious player, one of the best in his position in the league.

Now it’s up to him to show that he can do it without all the trappings that come from playing in an elite side – and, indeed, to turn the Tigers into an elite side.

Luai’s reputation is that he makes it all about him, and by signing this contract, there’s no doubt that he will be the centre of attention from now on.

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Before he leaves, he has to make sure that his move isn’t the story of the 2024 season at the Panthers, much as Koroisau and Crichton have done before. There was barely a peep from those two prior to departure, with professionalism and legacy front of mind.

There’s no suggestion that Luai won’t act in the same way, but you can guarantee that he will be asked about the Tigers in every interview between now and the day he leaves the Panthers. He has to play it with a straight bat.

When he arrives, the story will still be him, but his job will be elevating everyone else around him. With Api already in the building and Benji in charge, there won’t be a lack of leadership in the sheds, and Luai has to drive standards as hard as anyone.

If he does, then the move can be a success for him, his family and, as a result, the Wests Tigers.

For a guy who has posted Tupac Shakur’s “All Eyez On Me” track before, he’s finally got his wish. Now it’s up to him to put on a show.

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