Luai in stunning NSW audition as Panthers belt Sharks

Jasper Bruce |

A Jarome Luai masterclass helped power the Panthers to a crushing 42-0 win over the Sharks.
A Jarome Luai masterclass helped power the Panthers to a crushing 42-0 win over the Sharks.

Jarome Luai has saved his best performance in recent memory for the eve of the NSW State of Origin team announcement, powering Penrith back to form with a 42-0 thrashing of fellow NRL heavyweights Cronulla.

But the night could hardly have gone worse for Luai’s would-be Blues teammate Nicho Hynes, who entered Saturday’s game as injury-hit NSW’s presumptive halfback but departed before halftime with calf tightness.

Dropped after Origin II last year, Blues hopeful Luai pulled all the levers as the Penrith machine clicked ominously back into gear after last week’s shock loss to the Warriors.

NSW coach Michael Maguire watched from the Shark Park stands as Luai orchestrated the first three tries in the kind of suffocating performance that has become the three-time reigning premiers’ trademark.

“If, as we all think or hope, (Luai) goes into Origin, he’s certainly going in feeling pretty good in his form,” Panthers coach Ivan Cleary said.

“I thought his kicking tonight was probably the best he’s ever done across the game.

“He’s definitely more than ready, which he would have been anyway, but it’s nice to be able to go in with good form.”

A certainty to be picked in the Blues’ forward pack, Panthers second-rower Liam Martin stayed in the sheds at halftime with hamstring soreness.

But AAP understands the issue is not serious and that he will be available for Origin selection on Sunday. 

The same may not be said for Hynes.

The halfback sprayed two kicks out on the full midway through the first half, then left for a head injury assessment (HIA), helpless to prevent Penrith from streaking to a 28-0 lead at the break.

Nicho Hynes leaves the field.
Nicho Hynes (left) leaves the field for a head injury assessment against the Panthers. (Mark Evans/AAP PHOTOS)

Hynes passed his HIA, ordered after he copped Isaah Yeo’s knee in the head, but remained off the field with tightness in the calf that has hampered him in recent weeks.

Maguire will desperately hope Hynes’ latest niggle is minor as his options run thin for the June 5 series opener, with would-be halfbacks Nathan Cleary, Mitch Moses and Adam Reynolds already injured.

Replacing Cleary at the Panthers, Luai’s game management was so confident the seven-time Blues five-eighth may have put his hand up for the No.7 jersey Hynes was eyeing.

Luai targeted Sione Katoa with his kicking game all night, and after only four minutes the Sharks winger spilled a torpedo in the red zone. 

James Fisher-Harris cruised over at close range in the set that followed.

Luai had the Panthers’ second all on his own, stepping inside Tom Hazelton and Will Kennedy for a slick individual try to help the Panthers to a 12-0 lead after nine minutes.

At 18-0, the game was fast slipping out of the Sharks’ reach after Luai threw a flat pass off a scrum for Paul Alamoti’s try, having extracted another error out of Katoa with his boot.

Panthers fullback Dylan Edwards was back on song to make one last pitch for James Tedesco’s Blues fullback jersey. He crashed over for a try on the right edge and finished with a game-high 251 metres.

Penrith's Dylan Edwards.
Penrith’s Dylan Edwards scored a try and finished with a game-high 251 metres against the Sharks. (Mark Evans/AAP PHOTOS)

In a rattled and error-prone performance, it was hard for the Sharks’ Origin hopefuls to stake any claim for selection, though Craig Fitzgibbon’s side did stem the bleeding somewhat after the break.

The ladder-leading Sharks had lost only one of 10 games to begin the season, but never looked likely to trouble the Panthers.

“We got humbled there, applied no pressure, were on the end of pressure,” Fitzgibbon said.

“The basics of the game, they controlled all of that. They controlled the energy for the whole game.”