Jarome Luai may have already played his last match for Penrith after failing to train with the club on Monday following his decision to accept a high-priced deal with the Wests Tigers for 2025 and beyond.
The star five-eighth informed his teammates at training on Saturday that he would be leaving the club after next season and he has agreed to terms with the Tigers but has yet to lodge the paperwork for his contract to trigger the NRL’s new 10-day rule which would give Penrith the chance to make a counter-offer.
His management informed the Panthers that he needed to take a break from training as word spread about his switch to their western Sydney rivals, as first reported by The Sydney Morning Herald.
He took to social media to post “no pen to paper here. I’ll let yous know when a deal is done. BigLove.”
If Luai or the Tigers requested a release from the final year of his current deal with Penrith, the joint-venture club has space under its 2024 salary cap to bring his arrival to Concord forward a year.
The Panthers have already paid the first two months of the final year of his contract, as the NRL contract year begins on November 1, so the Tigers would not have to pick up the tab for the entirety of the last season of his deal.
There has been tension between Luai and Ivan Cleary after the coach questioned in October whether the NSW representative was sure he wanted to go to another club where he would be required to take over as the chief playmaker.
He has spent his career playing as a secondary option behind none other than the coach’s son, Panthers star Nathan Cleary.
The club is unsure whether Luai will front for training on Tuesday or Wednesday, the last session before the Christmas break.
Canterbury were also interested in Luai’s signature but a reported $6 million contract over five years from the Tigers was too good for the Samoan playmaker to knock back.
Luai had been free to negotiate with rival clubs for 2025 from November and the all-conquering Panthers, working to withstand salary cap pressure, were only prepared to offer him $850,000 per year.
The Tigers, coached by Luai’s childhood hero Benji Marshall from 2024, emerged as the front-runners in recent weeks.
Amid 12 years out of the finals, Wests have struggled to lure elite playmakers and had been turned down by Cam Munster, Jack Wighton and Mitch Moses since the end of the 2022 season.
Their halves have also been subject to media scrutiny through the dry spell, with Manly recruit Luke Brooks the most maligned for his inability to drag the Tigers up the table.
But with club legend Marshall installed and the entire board cleaned out this week, there is new-found optimism at the back-to-back wooden spooners.
Luai’s likely arrival leaves the Tigers’ current halves options Jayden Sullivan, Aidan Sezer and Latu Fainu jostling for the right to partner the marquee recruit from 2025.
Regardless of which man clinches a starting spot, a spine featuring Luai, hooker Api Koroisau and fullback Jahream Bula could amount to being the Tigers’ most competitive in years.
The Panthers, meanwhile, have Brad Schneider, Daine Laurie and junior prospect Jack Cole as options to play next to halfback Nathan Cleary, though Laurie is only signed for 2024.
A flamboyant ball runner known for his competitive approach, Luai has been a foil for the cool and calm Cleary through the Panthers’ 2021-2023 “three-peat”.
The 26-year-old was an elite prospect coming through the grades at Penrith and has played all 107 of his NRL games to date with the club.
Luai, a seven-time NSW representative, was dropped after the second game of this year’s State of Origin series but helped guide Samoa to the 2022 World Cup final.
He is the latest in a long list of Panthers squeezed out of the club by salary-cap pressures.
Koroisau, Matt Burton, Kurt Capewell, Viliame Kikau, Spencer Leniu and Stephen Crichton are among those to have left after tasting premiership success at Penrith.