Jarome Luai lifts the lid on Nathan Cleary's headspace after latest brutal NRL blow

Luai fears for his halves partner's general well-being after his latest hamstring injury.

Panthers star Jarome Luai says the latest injury setback for his halves partner Nathan Cleary is "heartbreaking". Cleary picked up a hamstring strain in Penrith's 16-10 win over the Bulldogs on Friday night, with the injury expected to rule him out of at least the first State of Origin game in June.

The Panthers halfback knew immediately his night was over just before halftime when he pulled up abruptly chasing his own kick. Cleary came straight off the field and reported to the Panthers medical staff that he was feeling pain in his left hamstring, a reoccurring problem for the star halfback. He will undergo scans on Saturday to determine just how severe his latest setback is.

Pictured left Jarome Luai and right with Nathan Cleary
Jarome Luai fears for Nathan Cleary's well-being after his latest injury setback. Image: Getty

Last year, a hamstring injury ruled Cleary out of Origin II and III and the latest injury is a cruel blow to Cleary weeks out from this year's Origin series. But Luai says that missing out on playing for the Blues is just the tip of the iceberg, stating that he had been mentally struggling during his latest stint on the sidelines.

"It's not really about Origin," Luai said. "It's about his well-being, about his health, at the end of the day."

"I'm sort of heartbroken, in a way. His spirits are pretty down. He's done it three times in a row now. It'll be frustrating for him. He loves his footy and he wants to play with the boys. I feel for him. I know what he's feeling but we've got good energy among this team and we'll get around him for sure."

Penrith's medicos are unclear if the hamstring strain was in the same spot as the injury that sidelined him recently, with the club facing a nervous wait for scan results. Cleary has managed just five games this season after succumbing to a leg injury in round three.

The Panthers' Cleary misfortune was only compounded by the injury to his replacement and previous stand-in Brad Schneider. Schneider picked up a serious leg injury in the NSW Cup on Friday, taken out while kicking the ball by Canterbury's young back-rower Kitione Kautoga.

It means youngster Jack Cole will most likely partner Jarome Luai in the halves in next week's Magic Round. Cole put in a solid performance on Friday night after coming on as Cleary's half-time replacement.

PENRITH, AUSTRALIA - MAY 10:  Jack Cole of the Panthers kicks the ball during the round 10 NRL match between Penrith Panthers and Canterbury Bulldogs at BlueBet Stadium on May 10, 2024, in Penrith, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)
Jack Cole put in a solid performance on Friday night after coming on as Cleary's half-time replacement.

The game marked Cole's third NRL appearance and provides him with the perfect opportunity to show why he should be the man to take Luai's spot in the Panthers side when the five-eighth joins the Wests Tigers in 2025. Before being thrown into the action, Panthers assistant coach Ben Gardiner spoke to the 20-year-old about how everyone at the club knows he is ready to step up to NRL level.

"(Gardiner) said to me at half-time that if they didn't believe me, I wouldn't be here," Cole said after the game. "Hearing that gives me a lot of confidence to just go out there and play footy.

"You hope that (Cleary) is all right but then at the same time, if he's not, then I've just got to be prepared to do my best. I'm not looking to fill his shoes, I'm just looking to be the best that I can be."

with AAP