Three players have declared they want Jarome Luai’s jersey when the star five-eighth departs for the Wests Tigers in 2025 — and it’s put the Panthers in a fascinating position.
Luai and his halves partner Nathan Cleary are the key part of the dynasty that’s been built at Penrith over the last four years. But for the first time since, well, they were teenagers, Cleary will be without his sidekick come 2025.
The Panthers faced a similar challenge when Api Koroisau and Viliame Kikau exited last year after winning two premierships with the club.
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The club used talent already on the books to replace Koroisau but went to market to fill the hole left by Kikau and bought Luke Garner and Zac Hosking. Although, Scott Sorensen ended up being Kikau’s real replacement.
The next move of the three-peat champions is crucial.
Does coach Ivan Cleary use the $850,000-a-season the club offered Luai to lure another big-name five-eighth to Penrith? Or does he put his faith in the players coming through and use that money to bolster another position?
foxsports.com.au has broken down both options and the players that could replace Luai.
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PROMOTE FROM WITHIN…
The Panthers’ production line of talent is no secret and is without a doubt an option the club will explore before going to market.
He’s been brought back from the Super League to play the role that Sean O’Sullivan and Jack Cogger did — a ready-made replacement for the Origin period or to fill in if Cleary or Luai get injured. What the Panthers do in 2025 hinges on how Schneider performs in 2024. When asked by foxsports.com.au if he wants the No.6 jersey Schneider said “yeah, 100 per cent.” But he also knows there’s a lot to do before then. “It’s an opportunity, but at the moment I’m only looking to grow as a player, I’ve got a big year ahead first. I’m not looking too far ahead, it’s a long time (until Luai goes) and a lot can happen,” he said. The 22-year-old played 12 NRL games for the Raiders over three seasons before signing with Hull KR, where he made headlines for kicking matchwinning field goals in back-to-back games. Prior to the UK move Schneider was one of the form playmakers in New South Wales Cup and the Panthers expect him to “flourish” in their highly successful system. Although Schneider’s preferred position is halfback, he has no issues with donning the No.6 and tweaking his game to complement Cleary.
He’s played majority of his first grade footy at fullback but make no mistake Daine Laurie can see himself in the Panthers’ No.6 jersey. Laurie is back where his NRL career began after inking a one-year deal with the Panthers and he couldn’t be happier. Laurie has been training at fullback, five-eighth and on the wing during pre-season but when asked if he’d like to play six exclusively when Luai leaves he said: “Yeah, we’ll see what happens.” It’s not unfamiliar territory for the 24-year-old given he spent time at five-eighth with the Tigers last season in both NSW Cup and in first grade. And it’s now his preferred position because “you get your hands on the ball first instead of getting it out the back of a block.”
At 20-years old and with just one NRL game under his belt Jack Cole is still at the very beginning of his career. The Orange CYMS junior had a breakout season in 2022 that included playing in Under 19s Origin, being named Jersey Flegg Player of the Year and winning the NSW Cup premiership with the Panthers. Despite still being eligible for Flegg, Cole established himself as a Cup player in 2023 playing 17 games switching between centre and five-eighth. He’s tipped to have a bright future in the NRL and his versatility has seen him be likened to former Panther Matt Burton. Cole didn’t shy away from declaring his interest in Luai’s jersey when asked by foxsports.com.au. “100 per cent. There’s three of us fighting for that spot… it’s really healthy competition at training,” he said. Cole acknowledged that he and Luai are “different type of players” but when asked what he could bring to the role if he got it, he said his running game was his biggest strength followed by his kicking game then passing game.
He’s the least likely of the bunch but a big 2024 could very well spring Trent Toelau into the mix. Toelau joined the Panthers in 2021 from the Storm and has had to bide his time. He was the Storm’s Under 21s Player of the Year in back-to-back seasons but initially struggled to break his way into the Panthers’ NSW Cup side. He played 18 games in 2023 — his most in a season — and finished with 11 try assists, 11 linebreak assists and an average of 70 running metres per game. Toelau, who is in his mid-20s, was rewarded with a train-and-trial for 2024.
…..AND SPEND MONEY ELSEWHERE
The plus side to filling Luai’s spot with a less established player is the financial freedom that gives the Panthers to beef-up other areas of the squad. After all the club has lost one of the best centres in the game this year and lost an elite hooker and second-rower the year before.
He desperately wants to play with his two siblings and both he and Taylan have already declared they are willing to leave their respective clubs to make it happen. May was in the Panthers’ system but left in 2020 to join the Magpies in NSW Cup. He then had stints with Blacktown Workers and North Sydney Bears before inking a Top 30 contract with the Roosters and making his NRL debut in 2022. The 24-year-old is coming off his best season to date and his contract is due to expire in November. The Panthers have lost Spencer Leniu to the Roosters and although Liam Henry is expected to break through this year, it’s still a significant loss in the engine room. Taylan told foxsports.com.au he’d be happy to play alongside just one of his brothers — the eldest, Tyrone, is signed to Super League club Hull KR until the end of 2025 — and believes Terrell would fit in at Penrith seamlessly.
The Titans star did re-sign in August, but he has player options for 2025 and 2026, meaning he could easily walk away to join a rival club next year. The catch is though, Fifita needs to make a call on the option for 2025 by Round 10. The Panthers have carried on just fine without Kikau, in fact Scott Sorensen found a home — and thrived — as a starting second-rower last season. But when a player as destructive as Fifita becomes available just about every club will look at their finances to see if its doable. The 23-year-old is set to earn $1 million per season if he stays at the Titans — a figure the Panthers wouldn’t be able to match. But what the Panthers do have is the last three premiership trophies on display in their cabinet and are showing no signs of slowing down.
One of the biggest names yet to settle his future is Roosters superstar Joseph Manu. The Dragons are interested and were reportedly considering making a $5 million offer for four years which included the opportunity to play fullback. That’s something the Panthers wouldn’t be able to offer given Dylan Edwards has earned the right to keep that No.1 jersey. But there is a centre spot that needs filling following Crichton’s departure. Taylan May is expected to get a chance to do so but if that plan doesn’t work out, arguably the best centre in the game is available… for now. The Panthers would have to move quickly and aggressively given it’s highly unlikely the Roosters would let Manu go easily, especially when coach Trent Robinson once declared the New Zealand international will be a Rooster for life.
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The powerhouse centre is coming off his best season to date and is in talks to re-sign with the Knights. Like Manu, it’s highly unlikely Best would leave but if the three-peat champions came knocking he’d be silly not to consider it. Best put an injury-riddled 2022 campaign behind him to play 25 games for the Knights last year and earn a State of Origin debut. Still only 22-years old, Best isn’t even close to his peak. Now imagine him hitting that peak in the Panthers system.
He’s only played 12 NRL games, but Kulikefu Finefeuiaki has already caught the attention of several clubs. The 20-year-old made his debut for the Cowboys last season in Round 10 and retained his spot for the remainder of the year. The 190cm, 105kg second-rower is a wrecking ball that has quickly established himself as one of the brightest young talents in the game. If big-money Fifita is a no-go, perhaps Finefeuiaki could be worth considering.
The odd man out in Jack Wighton’s arrival to the Rabbitohs is Isaiah Tass, who could be on the lookout for a new club soon. Wighton is expected to play left centre this year — where Tass had found a home. The 24-year-old has brushed off any concern over his position in the squad, often saying he’s happy to play any role the team needs. But if the Panthers want to boost their centre stocks — and could offer Tass a clearer path to playing consistent first grade — it’s a relationship worth exploring. It wouldn’t break the bank either.
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GO TO MARKET
The likes of Shaun Johnson and Kieran Foran are expected to retire, while Anthony Milford’s time in the NRL is hanging by a thread, but there’s still a stack of quality playmakers coming off contract at the end of 2024.
The Panthers would have to move quickly to have any chance with Ezra Mam given he’s currently in talks to extend with the Broncos on a four-year deal said to be worth $3 million. While it’s highly unlikely the reigning Five-eighth of the Year will leave the Broncos — he declared in October that he wants to re-sign — the Panthers have cash to spend and a three-peat to tempt Mam with.
It was assumed by some that Luke Keary would retire at the end of the season but foxsports.com.au can confirm the three-time premiership-winning five-eighth is keen to play on for another year. Keary would be the perfect stopgap solution for 2025 if the Panthers wanted to give a player like Jack Cole a little bit more time to develop as a five-eighth. Aside from Keary’s seriously impressive resume — three rings and a Clive Churchill Medal — he is one of the brightest minds in the game and his leadership would be a major coup for Penrith.
There’s going to be a logjam in the halves at the Warriors this season with Luke Metcalf, Te Maire Martin and Chanel Harris-Tavita all vying for the No.6 jersey. Metcalf won 10 of the 12 games he played at five-eighth last season but a devastating hamstring injury sidelined him for the finals series — and opened the door for Martin to reclaim his spot in the side. Two of the three will find themselves in reserve grade to start the season and if Metcalf is one, it could be a chance for the Panthers to strike. The 24-year-old is coming off contract and oozes both speed and skill. But with Shaun Johnson expected to retire at the end of this season, the Warriors may move to lock him in, meaning the Panthers would have to move rather quickly. They do have a very compelling pitch ready to go though — an opportunity to join the three-peat champions and partner Nathan Cleary in the halves.
Toby Sexton has long been regarded a future star of the NRL, which is why he inked a deal with the Titans said to be worth $500,000 a year before he had played a single game in the NRL. Sexton was a schoolboys sensation, partnering Sam Walker in the national side in 2019 and was once considered the Titans’ long-term No.7. But after falling out favour and spending majority of 2023 in Queensland Cup, Sexton got an early release to join the Bulldogs. He had an instant impact on the side, scoring three tries and setting up five in his eight appearances but is now battling new recruit Drew Hutchison for the halfback role.The 22-year-old has natural ability and would thrive in a system like Penrith’s. But he is a traditional No.7 in that his biggest strength is organising and that’s Nathan Cleary’s role.
There’s an interesting selection battle brewing up in Newcastle with Tyson Gamble, Jackson Hastings and Jack Cogger all pushing for a spot in the halves. Gamble and Hastings struck up a solid combination last season and steered the Knights to a semi-final. But Cogger has returned to the club as a premiership-winner after a successful apprenticeship with the Panthers. Hastings and Cogger are locked in until the end of 2025 and 2026 respectively but Gamble’s contract expires at the end of this season. Gamble, 27, has 49 NRL games under his belt plus years of reserve grade experience. On paper he may not be the right fit, but he certainly has a similar cheeky nature to Luai.
Jake Clifford has returned from a Super League stint hungry to force his way back into the NRL. Clifford made his debut at 20-years old for the Cowboys alongside rugby league legend Johnathan Thurston and was considered a key part of the club’s future. But in mid-2021 he was released to join the Knights, where he played 25 games over before signing with Hull FC. Clifford, now 26, has returned to where it all started to provide depth and keep the pressure on Cowboys halves Tom Dearden and Chad Townsend. Clifford’s long-term future is up in the air given his deal is only for 2024. He believes he’s returned to Townsville as a more mature and confident player.
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Now could be the time to bring the highly regarded Niwhai Puru home from the Sharks. The 21-year-old Windsor Wolves junior was previously in the Panthers’ system before signing with the Sharks. He got his first real run of games in NSW Cup last season with Newtown to finish with 11 try assists and 15 linebreak assists in 21 appearances, while averaging 80 running metres per game. He still has some work to do defensively — Puru had the most missed tackles in the competition — but his talent is undeniable. Puru was a part of Penrith’s premiership-winning Jersey Flegg side in 2022 and was expected to continue rising up the ranks until he was released early from his development deal to join Cronulla on a two-year deal which sees him join the Top 30 this year.
Ethan Sanders is one of the most sought-after young talents in the game and his future beyond this season is yet to be confirmed. The Eels locked Sanders in on a development deal for this year after a huge 2023 season in which the teenage playmaker led the club to its first SG Ball premiership, steered the Jersey Flegg side to a finals berth and represented NSW in under 19s Origin. He was also named the Eels’ SG Ball Player of the Year and Players’ Player. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, players not on Top 30 contracts that have been developed in a club’s system cannot negotiate with rivals until Round 6 of the season they come off contract. That gives the Panthers two months to consider whether or not they want to make a play for the 19-year-old.
Remember the young five-eighth that stole the show in a Rabbitohs trial game last year? That was Dion Teaupa. The up-and-coming playmaker set up a try and then bagged a double in a blistering 20 minutes to put his name on the map. It was expected he’d spend 2023 in Jersey Flegg but instead Teaupa played 21 games in NSW Cup — including the grand final and State Championship. He then went on to make his international debut for Tonga and was rewarded with a development deal with South Sydney for this season. Teaupa has vision and confidence — just like Luai — and by the end of 2024 will have two years of training alongside Cody Walker under his belt.
Source website: www.foxsports.com.au