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Panthers extras help Luai catch Cleary

JAROME LUAI

While Nathan Cleary's NRL career skyrocketed, Penrith five-eighth Jarome Luai was putting in extra work outside of regular training hours to get to the same level.

In 2015, the good friends and halves partners won the under-20s premiership for Penrith and the following year Cleary played just one game of reserve grade before making his NRL debut.

Since then, Cleary has played 79 first grade games and established his place as a State of Origin half, while Luai is only now getting his chance to nail down a regular spot next to him in the NRL side, four years later.

On his podcast Six Tackles with Gus in May last year, former Penrith boss Phil Gould described Luai as the future of the Panthers, saying as a teen he was considered better than Cleary.

But for Luai, now 23, the path to the NRL was not as clear cut.

"Nathan had a lot bigger body and was a lot more developed than I was coming through the grades," Luai told AAP.

"I had a lot more work to do."

Needing to put on muscle and improve his kicking skills, Luai put in hours and hours of work with his dad Martin to give himself the chance that's in front of him in 2020.

"We were doing early starts and sometimes late at night as well, little extras after training," he said.

"My kicking probably wasn't as good as Nath's and that's a big part of the halves role in the game, so I needed to get better.

"But I think dad could see the bigger goal and what it would do for me.

"I've put on a bit of weight now so I'm really thankful for that."

Luai has played 17 NRL games, covering all positions in the backline except for wing and was featured in eight games last year from the bench.

With James Maloney's exit to the English Super League, an opportunity has arrived to link Luai and Cleary again in 2020, which means consistent training in his specialist position for the first time.

Success this season is important for Luai, who has a young family to support with partner Bailey and 18-month-old son Israel.

"I have a lot of support from my mum and dad and my partner as well," he said.

"She was really big with her sports as well, she was a basketball player and a touch player and I know being a young mum took a lot away from her. She's been a real support for me.

"There's not too much pressure there, I love what I do. I love being a dad and it's all a bit of extra motivation for me to go hard."

© AAP 2020