Hangover alert with Cleary hellbent on perfect Panthers claiming missing trophy – as injured star makes late bid to play
Nathan Cleary admits last year’s World Club Challenge loss left Penrith with a hangover that impacted their start to the NRL season, but the premiers are out to right the wrongs in 2024.
And Jarome Luai insists he could return early from his shoulder injury for the clash with Wigan on February 25 (AEDT), when the all-conquering Panthers can clinch the only trophy that has eluded them.
Penrith suffered a surprise 13-12 home loss to Super League champions St Helens in the 2023 clash as they reconfigured following Api Koroisau and Viliame Kikau’s departures. It proved the start of an unconvincing month for the premiers.
The Panthers lost two of their first three NRL games and found themselves in an uncharacteristic slump chasing a third consecutive title.
As they lay the groundwork for a fourth, Penrith are out to harness the game as preparation to hit the ground running this season.
“It kind of was a bit of a hangover last year,” Cleary told AAP ahead of the World Club Challenge at Wigan’s DW Stadium.
“Just seeing how much it meant to St Helens and losing that game did hurt. We want to try to correct that this year. Obviously, over there will be a greater challenge in front of their home fans.”
The Panthers have won three consecutive premierships and three minor premierships in a four-year period of dominance.
But a victory in the World Club Challenge, cancelled due COVID-19 after their first grand final win, remains absent from the team’s CV.
No Penrith side of yesteryear has won the title, either; the 1991 and 2003 NRL premiership-winning teams both lost handily to their British hosts.
“That’s why it’s such a great opportunity for us. We as a club have never won it,” Cleary said.
Luai says medical staff might not be able to stop him from lining up in the fixture if his shoulder feels up to it.
The five-eighth underwent surgery after aggravating a previous injury during Penrith’s third consecutive grand final win – a 26-24 comeback defeat of Brisbane in October.
Luai, who joins Wests Tigers in 2025, has spent the bulk of the pre-season nursing back to strength away from his teammates. But he made it through an opposed session unscathed at the weekend and could earn valuable match practice in the World Club Challenge.
“I’m telling everyone I’m a chance to play,” he told AAP. “I’m not too sure the physios agree with me on that but I guess I’ll have the last say.”
“If anyone knows me, (they know) I don’t want to miss too much footy, obviously I want to make sure the shoulder is 100 per cent. I’m definitely on my way.”