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Cole Comfort: Why replacing Luai is the biggest challenge yet for the Panthers' succession planning

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12th January, 2024
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It would be glib to suggest that the Panthers have anything to prove to the world when it comes to recruitment.

Their policy of producing their own ahead of looking to the market has taken them to three Premierships and will see them enter the campaign for a fourth as favourites.

It’s hard to say that they have completed rugby league – at least, not until they win a World Club Challenge – but they’ve come as close as anyone in the modern era to being able to say that they have this NRL malarkey sussed out.

This year, however, it will be put to the test like never before.

With the departure of Jarome Luai, the club needs to find a new five eighth and will be acutely aware that key position players of his quality do not grow on trees.

Penrith have managed to backfill every departure so far, partly because their youth system is so good but also because they have boxed very clever in who they allowed to leave.

The guys who are most essential to Ivan Cleary’s style of football are the ones who have been extended and upgraded, while those deemed good, but replaceable have been told to cash in on their Panthers success.

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Nathan Cleary, obviously, is the centrepiece of this but Isaah Yeo, the second most important player in their attack, was also given an upgrade in March.

Their two most important defensive players, set starters Dylan Edwards and Brian To’o, have been given long extensions that will tie them to the club for the bulk of their careers.

Moses Leota is on a similarly lengthy deal and James Fisher-Harris, recently crowned Golden Boot for his work with the Kiwis, will likely get one when his comes up in 2025 if not before.

Guys like Matt Burton, Stephen Crichton, Viliame Kikau and Spencer Leniu fell well within the ‘nice to have’ territory, but were not essential to the wider functioning of Cleary’s system.

Only Api Koroisau could be seen as a key position player who was allowed to depart, but even then, he did so at the age of 29 when his best years were clearly behind him, and in the knowledge that he would get an elite-level contract to end his career that the Panthers could never match.

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)

The toughest decision for the recruitment team would have been last year, with both Edwards and Luai able to talk to outsiders as of November 1, and the club spoke with their wallets.

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It might be that other clubs did too: Luai, as an individual, is big time and talks a great game, ideal for a club like the Wests Tigers who need a marquee name as much as they need an elite player.

Edwards, on the other hand, is a softly spoken country boy who seemingly has little desire to be the centre of attention.

He likely also knows that he is on the best possible deal for him as a footballer within the Panthers set-up, with little interest in going anywhere else.

The higher-ups at Penrith have shown little desire to replace Luai on the open market. The business model is built on internal promotion, and models are there for the most difficult situations.

Matt Cameron, the main man at the foot of the mountains, will relish a challenge like this.

He’ll know that it is a poor marketplace for halves anyway – just ask St George Illawarra – and that his best bet at finding value is to look to his juniors.

It’s a little ironic that the next cab off the rank in terms of Western Sydney halves has already departed, with Isaiya Katoa leaving for the Dolphins before he made so much as a single first grade appearance due to the pathway that was clogged by Luai and Cleary.

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Instead, it looks likely that Jack Cole will get the nod and on paper, he has it all lined up to work within this Panthers system.

Cole hails from Orange, a key part of the bush footy pathway that has already delivered Yeo, Burton (both Dubbo), Liam Martin (Temora) and Charlie Staines (Forbes) to Premiership success.

It’s Burton whom he most resembles, with a bigger frame than Luai, a strong kicking game and a versatility that has also seen him play centre.

In fact, a cynical judge might suggest that one could date the Panthers’ realisation that Luai would not stay on to the point at which Cole moved from centres in NSW Cup to five eighth, midway through last year.

Truth be told, the player profile that most springs to mind from watching his tape is fellow Orange product Jack Wighton, with the famed ‘run first’ mentality that supersedes any great subtlety with the ball.

Wighton and Burton are both listed as 9kg heavier than Cole, but he is just 20 and could be expected to add plenty of bulk as he grows into his body.

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This is very much a different profile from Luai, but one that the Panthers might look to build upon going forward.

With Cleary and Yeo locked in, Penrith don’t really need to play another passing five eighth and might benefit from a more direct player, especially if Izack Tago continues his development as a creative force in the centres.

In terms of development, they have plenty of options to set Cole up for success.

Crichton’s departure has opened up a spot in the centres – albeit on the right, rather than Cole’s preferred left – that could allow the club to expose the youngster to first grade for an entire year before thrusting him into a key position role.

Alternatively, they could give him the whole of 2024 in his preferred position in NSW Cup, promoting him to the NRL as required when Luai is absent through suspension, injury and potentially rep requirements.

The Panthers have back-ups in their squad already, with Brad Schneider and Daine Laurie both able to play 6, but it would be out of keeping for the club to use an understudy when a kid is available.

Whatever they do, the biggest factor in his development is likely to be time.

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Luai is 107 games into his NRL career but was given 39 in NSW Cup – ten more than Cole currently has – plus a World Cup with Samoa before establishing himself in the Penrith team.

Despite playing almost two entire seasons at 6 in second grade, Luai began his NRL career off the bench, only starting during Origin-affected matches, with the club allowing him to bounce up and down without pressure until he was deemed ready in 2020.

With a year up their sleeves until Cole is required, Ivan and his team can play the long game on their new five eighth.

Within that, they also have to manage expectations throughout the transition.

Luai is a hybrid half, more of a 6 and a half than a pure five eighth, as evidenced by his work as a halfback with Samoa. In the current NRL, only really Cody Walker comes close as both a creative force and a running force.

They’re big shoes to fill for anyone, and much like Walker’s partner Lachlan Ilias and his predecessor, Adam Reynolds, everyone will be immediately comparing Cole to the guy who came before him.

The Panthers need to be consistent in their messaging around Cole, both to the player internally and to the supporters and media externally. They need to back their guy and let him play.

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There can be fewer more thankless tasks than replacing a guy who has won three Premierships back to back. No amount of talent prepares a young player for that experience.

But if there is one club that has made an art form out of replacing their stars with kids, it’s the Panthers. You’d not back against them with Jack Cole.

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