Penrith stars Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai open up on life as rugby league’s greatest Odd Couple
Penrith stars Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai open up on life as rugby league’s greatest Odd Couple

The day Nathan Cleary made star Panther cry

Jarome Luai remembers little of his first showdown with Nathan Cleary.

But the second?

Yeah, he remembers that one.

"Because Nathan made me cry," he says.

Huh?

"I was 14," the Penrith No.6 continues. "Playing for St Marys. And we had a really strong side back then.

"Never, ever got beat.

"But then this one Saturday afternoon, we came up against Brothers …"

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Now Brothers, you should know, had long been the competition's easybeats.

A truth that didn't change after the arrival, some 12 months earlier, of a kid everyone kept saying was Ivan Cleary's son.

In fact, ask the younger Cleary about his own first memory of Luai and he recounts a training session shortly after shifting across from New Zealand. An afternoon, he says, when teammates spoke in worried tones about some skinny St Mary's halfback - a freak, they said - who was likely going to tear them apart that weekend.

"Which he did," Cleary says. "Jarome played like a gun."

 

Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai have formed a formidable combination at the Panthers. Picture: NRL Photos
Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai have formed a formidable combination at the Panthers. Picture: NRL Photos

 

 

Yet, surprisingly, Luai is hazy on that first U/13s encounter.

But not the second, the next year.

"Because Nath, he absolutely killed us," the Panthers five-eighth says. "Tore us up, even kicked three 40/20s.

"Nobody ever did that against us. And I remember afterwards, there were a whole lot of us crying because of Nathan Cleary.

"I'll never forget it."

Nor does he get a chance.

Not when nine years on, these old childhood rivals are not only still together, or now best mates, but arguably the most dangerous of any NRL halves combination.

How many games they've played together? Neither can say.

Aware only that since first pairing up at a Panthers Playmaker Academy, they have since progressed through Harold Matthews, SG Ball, even been part of an U20s premiership.

Together, growing as mates, halves partners, everything.

Indeed, so close is Luai now to Cleary - and vice versa - the rising Panthers playmaker will tell you he can "feel" what the likely Dally M Medallist is going to do.

"Same as with a look," he says. "Nathan knows when I want the ball."

But please, don't mistake chemistry for carbon copy.

"Because we're actually complete opposites," Cleary says.

Aren't they what?

 

 

Jarome Luai, Josh Mansour and Nathan Cleary celebrate after the Panthers knocked off powerhouse Sydney Roosters. Picture: Getty Images
Jarome Luai, Josh Mansour and Nathan Cleary celebrate after the Panthers knocked off powerhouse Sydney Roosters. Picture: Getty Images

 

 

In Cleary, you have a halfback who plays straight, looks a little Captain America and speaks like a young man might if he were being charged $10 per word.

Yet Luai - he's the brash Mt Druitt kid who dresses loud, talks louder.

A fella forever sledging rivals, cracking jokes or simply looking for that stray sandshoe, baseball cap, whatever to take from a teammate's locker.

"He even got my fluffy jumper," complains winger Brian To'o. "I haven't seen it for ages. It's the warmest thing I've ever owned too.

"Jarome is always taking clothes, hats, shoes … he's a bigger pest than James Maloney."

Which is some claim. Like suggesting a fella sings better than Johnny Cash.

But just as Maloney was a sledging, pranking, punting larrikin for Panthers, so Luai is now assuming the role in every area bar those long hours at the TAB.

"So maybe it's the Panthers No.6 jersey," Cleary shrugs. "Who knows?

"But the similarities, it's pretty funny."

Which is likely true for everyone but those rivals who, for this year's NRL Player Poll, voted Luai among the top three sledgers in rugby league.

When voting occurred, the 23-year-old had played less than 30 games. Didn't matter.

With rivals picking him behind only North Queensland Cowboy Josh McGuire - and equal with Wests Tigers playmaker Josh Reynolds.

"But that was a complete stitch up," Luai insists when the poll is recalled. "I know a few of the boys here at Penrith actually voted for me."

So you don't sledge?

"Ah, sometimes words do fly," he says. "But I wouldn't consider myself top three.

"I'm just an energetic guy who likes to win."

Which again, is different to the kid who once made him cry.

"Jerome is loud, outgoing, a joker," Cleary says. "While I'm quieter, more reserved."

But together they work.

"Because there isn't any ego with Jarome," his mate continues. "Often when guys are really loud, the players around them will be 'who is this bloke?'

"But it isn't like that here. Everyone is equal."

 

The finals excitement is building for Jarome Luai and the Panthers. Picture: Phil Hillyard
The finals excitement is building for Jarome Luai and the Panthers. Picture: Phil Hillyard

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Indeed, ask rising Panthers centre Stephen Crichton where his halves are the same and he doesn't hesitate.

"After training, they're both last off the field," Crichton says.

Which, right across the squad, is what makes these minor premiers tick.

Undoubtedly, their undefeated run of 15 straight is fuelled by a mix of characters - from winger Brian To'o entering training with a boom box on his shoulder to backrowers Isaah Yeo and Liam Martin, who are the signature silent bush assassins.

Their secret is their balance of personalities.

"And I do talk a lot," Luai concedes. "Sometimes too much.

"But I believe energy is contagious.

"So I'm trying to be the guy who brings that to our team."

And Cleary?

"Nathan is the one who holds everything together."

Better, the Panthers halfback is also starting to joke a little more.

Apparently, now wearing better kicks, too.

"Oh, I've definitely helped with his dress sense," Luai insists. "He's finally got some swag about him.

"Nathan has come out of his shell, too - a lot.

"First year of Harold Matthews, he was really quiet. Never said much at all.

"But now, he's actually pretty funny. When I tease him, he actually gives it back to me."

Which brings us full circle to the day Cleary made him cry.

"Yeah, I remember it," the Panthers halfback grins. "That's still one of the greatest wins I've ever had in rugby league.

"Honestly, it was such a big upset. The first time anyone had beaten that St Mary's side."

So c'mon then, time to show us what Luai has taught you in the sledging department.

Maybe you take it to him? To his game? Something.

"Ah, we really rattled them," Cleary grins. "It was a good day."

 

Nathan Cleary has turned in a supreme NRL season. Picture: NRL Photos
Nathan Cleary has turned in a supreme NRL season. Picture: NRL Photos

 

 

 

Originally published as The day Nathan Cleary made star Panther cry



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