Cleary’s injury leaves Luai in for game-managing test

Jasper Bruce |

An injured Nathan Cleary boards the team bus at the end of their game with Canterbury.
An injured Nathan Cleary boards the team bus at the end of their game with Canterbury.

Jarome Luai is poised for his first test as an NRL game manager as Nathan Cleary waits nervously for the results of his latest hamstring injury.

Penrith halfback Cleary went for scans on Saturday afternoon after aggravating his right hamstring during the 16-10 win over Canterbury on Friday night. Early indications are that he will need several weeks to recover.

“I’m sort of heartbroken, in a way,” Luai said on seeing his mate go down.

“His spirits are pretty down.”

Cleary’s State of Origin hopes are in serious doubt ahead of the series opener on June 5, while at club level, the Panthers’ depth is in for the kind of test rarely seen during their premiership dynasty.

Across their three premiership seasons, Penrith made a habit of hiring a second-string halfback who could organise the side’s attack the way Cleary does. Sean O’Sullivan and Jack Cogger have both filled the role capably during Cleary’s previous absences.

But this year’s understudy Brad Schneider is himself sidelined with a knee injury, meaning X-factor five-eighth Luai is likely to take on a new role.

Luai was organiser for Samoa at the World Cup in 2022, with the coming weeks set to provide a glimpse into his future as Wests Tigers’ attacking mastermind from 2025.

Luai was displeased with his efforts taking over from Cleary midway through Friday’s game, but says he will lean on the injured halfback for advice ahead of Saturday’s clash with the Warriors.

“I’ll double down this week, he’ll be in my ear, helping me out with whatever role I’ve got to play next week,” Luai said.

“I’ll put in the reps this week, put in some overtime with video and stuff like that, and get Nathan’s advice for how I can be better at that role.”

Luai
Jarome Luai is feeling sad for close friend Nathan Cleary and says the Panthers will support him. (Mark Evans/AAP PHOTOS)

Young gun Jack Cole is likely to start in the halves from next weekend after replacing Cleary midway through his third NRL game against Canterbury.

Scouted from NSW’s central west, Cole has been identified as a possible replacement for Luai in 2025.

“We’ve certainly got high hopes for Coley,” said Panthers coach Ivan Cleary.

A chat with assistant coach Ben Gardiner at halftime of Friday night’s game helped convince the 20-year-old he was ready to step up and into the halves at NRL level.

“(Gardiner) said to me at halftime that if they didn’t believe me, I wouldn’t be here,” Cole said.

“Hearing that gives me a lot of confidence to just go out there and play footy.

“I’ve just got to be prepared to do my best. I’m not looking to fill his shoes, I’m just looking to be the best that I can be.”

Cleary has contended with a troublesome right hamstring for the majority of the season, first injuring it during the round-three win over Brisbane and spending a month on the sidelines.

The Panthers rested Cleary the week after he returned to face North Queensland in round eight, only for the 26-year-old to aggravate the injury in the next game he played.

Coach Cleary stood by the decision to play his son against the Bulldogs, saying all indications were he had overcome the injury.

“He’s basically done every session for two weeks without any drama. Obviously he’s done it again, so that’s a problem, but it hasn’t been an ongoing thing,” Cleary said.

AAP