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Pressure Points: If the Panthers are to make it a fourpeat, they’ll need Luai to be at his best in 2024

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22nd December, 2023
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They say the hardest part of building a dynasty in sports is that you have to continually climb the mountain.

To quote the boxer Marvin Hagler: “It’s tough to get out of bed to do roadwork at 5 am when you’ve been sleeping in silk pyjamas.”

Given that the Panthers have made it as far as three Premierships, it would be safe to assume that they don’t mind an early morning job.

Whether that stretches as far as four remains to be seen, but the bookies don’t make money by being wrong and they’ve already got them as favourites for a fourpeat.

What Penrith have done continually is refresh desire in the playing group and overcome forced changes to the roster.

While the club is seen as a model of consistency, they are in fact more successful because of the consistency of their model, which seeks to internally replace wherever possible, even when a star leaves.

Half of the 2021 Grand Final team are now gone – and that’s before Jarome Luai actually leaves – but the most irreplaceable parts are still there and the rest has been backfilled from the huge junior nursery.

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The model is great but it does depend on certain unicorn players who have been extended and upgraded repeatedly – until Luai.

Is Stephen Crichton the best centre in the world? Quite possibly. Is he crucial to the Panthers’ system? Absolutely not, so he’s allowed to leave.

Is Dylan Edwards the best fullback in the world? Not a chance. Is he crucial to the system? Absolutely yes, so he gets paid.

Remember, midway through last year, there were questions around the contracts of both Edwards and Jarome Luai. Guess who the system depends on more?

Though the five eighth is peripheral to Ivan Cleary’s broader tactical plan, he is the most senior and most key position player depart and thus his leaving presents the biggest issue yet.

But before we get into that, let’s recap what that system is and why it matters.

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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Ivan has excelled in building a structure that maximises metres from the backline, which both ensures consistent yardage production across 80 minutes (as backs never get subbed) and thus frees up middles to focus on defence.

On top of that, he has instilled a clear hierarchy in attack that allows Nathan Cleary and the lock, Isaah Yeo, to pilot the system into good ball and then put the squeeze on while down there, either through patient attack and repeat sets or points.

It’s not a secret, but nobody has been able to stop it – and any emphasis on the individuals themselves largely misses the point.

Yes, Nathan and Isaah are exceptional talents, but the Panthers have played plenty of games without them and done perfectly fine too, because that’s why you have a system.

Within this, however, Luai’s loss will be felt. He might not be the best player to depart –  Api Koroisau or Crichton would have a say – but he is the most system-critical.

Luai, on the other hand, contributed vitally to the ability to turn pressure into points. If teams can continually turn the Panthers away, then the strangle breaks and, suddenly, so does the system.

The likes of Brisbane – and, at times, Souths – have shown that if you can suffer on your goalline, then you can attack from deep and move the Panthers around.

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Parra have proven several times that you can kick your way out of trouble and change the location of the game, sending pressure back the other way.

St Helens, too, also demonstrated that the best defences could rattle Penrith’s attack and generate victories that way.

It’s all theoretical stuff, but the loss of Luai will move the Panthers back towards the pack.

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

That’s all 2025’s problem, however. In 2024, the issue will be getting the same levels out of their five eighth as they have had previously.

Luai has been away from training all week, and while this isn’t a great look in the media, on a practical level it makes perfect sense.

When you have a guy who is evidently mulling over a huge life decision, it’s better to let him sort that out rather than force him to go in, especially when he’s not training with the main group anyway due to his injury recovery.

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There’s no indication that Luai will leave a year early (and the Panthers have insisted that it won’t happen), so they will be planning around a fourth Premiership with him in the 6 jumper for as long as possible, while also using the year’s grace to get Jack Cole, Daine Laurie or whoever they think the next guy is up to speed.

The greater pressure is on the player himself.

The Panthers have created a culture that is all about the collective, and the guys that we all knew were leaving have made a real point of only talking about Penrith while still at Penrith.

Luai is, as far as one can discern his personality from public pronouncements and media interactions, very much his own man.

That’s why he’s such a newsworthy character, because he’s unapologetically himself, which inspires both love and hate depending on your viewpoint.

Every interview from now on will be about the Tigers, not the Panthers, but it is up to Luai to make the story as little about himself as possible.

Within the Penrith camp, that won’t be a problem: they know him, know his character and know he’ll be committed.

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PENRITH, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 04: Jarome Luai of the Panthers runs the ball during the round 23 NRL match between Penrith Panthers and Melbourne Storm at BlueBet Stadium on August 04, 2023 in Penrith, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

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

But the outside noise that everyone in rugby league says they don’t listen to does make a difference and if Luai doesn’t perform on the field, it won’t be long before the story becomes about his lack of dedication to the here and now.

None of the players who have left Penrith have yet hit the heights they hit while with the club – there’s that system again – but a small part of that is that they also put in career-best years in their final season with the Panthers.

Luai would struggle to do the same, especially factoring in how effective he was in 2021 and 2022, but if he gets even near to those levels, the Panthers will go very close to a fourth Premiership.

Indeed, he might be the single biggest factor in whether it happens or not. With Luai, they’re favourites. Without him, it’ll be hard to see it happening.

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