Why Brad Fittler sees the marquee No.7 of Benji’s dreams in Jarome Luai

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Even at $1.2 million a season, Jarome Luai doesn’t need to be Nathan Cleary in the Wests Tigers No.7 jersey. Not least because he will have Api Koroisau right alongside him at No.9.

Former Blues coach Brad Fittler knows Luai better than most, having handed him his Origin debut and watched the Panthers pivot rise whenever he was riled.

Penrith coach Ivan Cleary seemed to have done just that when he said rival clubs would be taking a risk on Luai as a seven-figure, chief playmaker – a comment duly met with the famous “know your worth” Instagram post from Luai.

Cleary only said what plenty of observers have uttered before and since. But with Benji Marshall pitching to make Luai his No.7 and main man on an eye-watering $6 million, five-year deal, Fittler sees plenty of reason for it to work.

”I think [Luai] thrives on people suggesting he can’t do something,” Fittler told this masthead. “I’d suggest he’ll find a way to do it. He puts up with a lot, Jarome, and he seems to have that ability to use it to push himself.

“And with Nathan Cleary, he obviously brings a lot of the traditional halfback play while Daly Cherry-Evans, Jahrome Hughes, Sam Walker, they bring a different [style], don’t they?

Brad Fittler can see a first-class halfback in Jarome Luai.

“You do have to tick certain game management boxes but as long as your playmaking spine, between the three of you, has them covered, there’s no reason why [Luai] couldn’t be a halfback.

“If you look at Api in particular, so much of their game is played off him, and he can do what it might take other teams two players to do, that freeing-the-ruck-up side of things. Api can do that pretty much on his own.

“I think it’s about having a group or a spine of players to get those basics right more than just one player.”

Luai himself told this masthead in May that he “relished” his role as Samoa’s chief playmaker at last year’s World Cup, steering the island nation to a final opposite Cleary’s Kangaroos.

While the Bulldogs and former Panthers assistant coach Cameron Ciraldo remain an option given no contract has been signed, the Tigers are the firm front-runners to land Luai from the end of 2024.

A long-term playmaking spine of Jahream Bula (signed until the end of 2027), Luai, Koroisau (2026) and one of Latu Fainu, Jayden Sullivan or Adam Doueihi holds tremendous potential, to say the least.

As Luai, 26, enters his playmaking prime, Marshall offers as good a sounding board as any coach could on either balancing or transitioning between off-the-cuff play and game management.

“Benji did it himself, didn’t he?” Fittler said. “Benji wasn’t a traditional halfback, but he ended up playing halfback his way.

“Some of Benji’s best footy was at the end [of his career] and he was playing a completely different role. He’s a great example of the possibilities here. And again, Jarome’s just never had that responsibility. So I think there’s a lot of just assuming he can’t do it, just because he’s never had to.

“And Jarome does have a really nice [long] kick on him. Maybe not as far as Nathan Cleary. Traditionally, that kicking game is the halfback’s job, and I’m sure [Luai] could do it. He’s had arguably the best teacher right there too by playing next to [Cleary], one of the best at it”.

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