In their three years at the very top of the NRL, the Panthers have been dogged by accusations of ”arrogance”.
And Jarome Luai has been at the centre of much of the criticism.
Going back to Origin III in 2022, Luai was labelled a ”grub” by Selwyn Cobbo after the Panthers No.6 stood over Cobbo and screamed after he’d been knocked out.
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Then after their grand final win over the Eels last October, there was the infamous ’We Hate Parra’ chants at a fan day the morning after, which stemmed from comments Luai had made saying their western rivals should call the Panthers ”Daddy”.
In May, he was hit with a contrary conduct charge and fined $1800 for a touching a sideline judge.
He was in hot water again after Origin I this season over a 4am Instagram post where he seemed to refer to fans as ”idiots”.
But Luai embraces the negativity.
”I’ve got a saying for myself: if you’re not hated you’re not doing it right,” he said last year.
That aside, whenever the Panthers take the field, they hold the attention of the entire Penrith area.
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Billy Slater believes the achievements of Luai, as well as his teammates and close friends Brian To’o and Stephen Crichton, should ignite the imagination in a generation of kids that they, too, could be stars.
The three of them all grew up in and around St Marys and Mount Druitt – an area of Western Sydney usually in the headlines for its youth crime problem.
In the three of them, Slater believes lies inspiration for their community.
”I talk to them occasionally at the games and interview them and they seem like great young men,” he said on Wide World of Sports’ The Billy Slater Podcast.
”Sure they might not have had the luxuries that some people have had in their childhood and growing up, but they are great young men.
”Their parents need to be really proud of the young men that they’ve helped bring up and they’re doing a great job for their community.”
The Panthers have had strong Polynesian representation for several seasons. In 2022, nine of their top-30 players represented Tonga, Samoa and Fiji at the World Cup.
Slater said the role the club plays in the psyche of the Penrith area is something coach Ivan Cleary is well aware of.
”… You look at the Penrith Panthers and what those three guys in particular have been able to do in terms of the Western Sydney Polynesian culture, and even just the Penrith community in general, they’re great leaders,” he said.
”And they’re leading the way to show the youth that there is a direction to take and, and a positive direction to take for your community.”
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Slater said the Panthers’ grand final opponents were doing a similar thing around Brisbane, as were the Knights and Warriors.
”We see the scenes (and) crowds at training at the Broncos. We saw the Newcastle crowd, the Warriors have created a huge movement over there in New Zealand.”
He said the massive crowds that turned up to watch both the men’s and women’s Prime Minister’s XIII clashes in Port Moresby on Saturday afternoon were proof a similar thing was happening in Papua New Guinea.
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”And the NRL are running with a slogan, this is footy country. And you can associate that with a lot of areas right now,” he added
The Panthers lost two Polynesian stars – Viliame Kikau and Api Koriosau – at the end of last season, and Crichton will join Kikau at the Bulldogs for 2024.
Doubt over Luai’s future at the club remain. He is contracted until the end of next season, but will become a free agent on November 1.
Brian To’o is contracted at the foot of the Blue Mountains until the end of 2027.