Cooper Cronk cuts down Jarome Luai in stunning claim about Penrith's NRL grand final win

Nathan Cleary led the Panthers to an incredible comeback - but only after his halves partner changed.

Cooper Cronk has made the startling claim that Penrith wouldn't have won the NRL grand final in 2023 if Jarome Luai had stayed on the field and not gotten injured. The Broncos led 24-8 with 25 minutes remaining, before Nathan Cleary produced an all-time performance to lead the Panthers to a 26-24 triumph.

Cleary provided two assists (for Moses Leota and Stephen Crichton) and the match-winning try with 90 seconds remaining as Penrith broke the Broncos' hearts to win their third premiership in three years. But according to Cronk, it wouldn't have happened if Luai hadn't re-injured his shoulder and gone off the field.

Cooper Cronk, Jarome Luai and Nathan Cleary.
Cooper Cronk has highlighted how Jarome Luai's absence allowed Nathan Cleary to run the ball more in the NRL grand final. Image: Getty

The Panthers had struggled to crack the Broncos' defence for the first 60 minutes of the grand final, but when Luai went off and Jack Cogger came on their attack clicked into gear. As Cronk pointed out on the Matty Johns Podcast on Tuesday, Cogger unlocked Cleary's running game by providing much more space for him than Luai had.

"This might sound crazy to say but if Jarome Luai stays on the field, Brisbane win," Cronk said. "Jack Cogger comes onto the field and creates space for Cleary to become a ball runner and a line-breaker.

"Go back and watch the Leota try - Cogger's ball-playing is so good that it creates space for Cleary to go through on the outside of (Kurt) Capewell. And again for the Crichton try - you watch the nuance that Cogger does with his footwork and his eyes. He looks in, plays out and goes straight, and creates enough space for Nathan to get the ball out."

Johns highlighted that the Panthers were too "pass-centric" when Luai was on the field and Cleary was doing the majority of the halfback work. But when Cogger came on and took over the first-receiver role, Cleary was freed up to run more and take the line on.

Jarome Luai, pictured here after the Panthers came back to win the NRL grand final.
Jarome Luai went off the field before the Panthers came back to win the NRL grand final.

Panthers attack failed to fire against Melbourne Storm

Cogger has since moved to the Newcastle Knights, but has been biding his time on the bench behind Jackson Hastings and Tyson Gamble. As for the Panthers, their attack was way out of sync with Cleary and Luai back in the halves against the Melbourne Storm in the opening round.


For the first time in Cleary's career he failed to get his side on the scoreboard, with the Panthers going down 8-0. As Cronk highlighted, the Panthers fell way out of their system as they struggled to crack the Storm defence.

"The ball was going left to right," he said. "And Jarome Luai - who normally stays on the left-hand side - I saw him multiple times on the right-hand side of the field."

Jack Cogger in action for the Panthers in 2023.
Jack Cogger in action for the Panthers in 2023.

Ivan Cleary not panicking despite Panthers' struggles

The Panthers have now lost back-to-back games since the grand final after going down to Wigan in the World Club Challenge. It means they haven't crossed for a try in more than two hours of game-time.

The premiers will look to get their season on track against Parramatta on Friday night, and coach Ivan Cleary isn't panicking. "Every team is similar at the start of the season ... and we're no different," Cleary said.

"Some guys have done more training and played more trials than others and we're clearly still trying to find our feet in that regard. We also got a little bit clunky, kind of chasing down points at the end of the game.

"We're probably trying too hard. To the Storm's credit their scramble was outstanding and they frustrated us as well. (It is) all the stuff you have got to go through games to iron out, and we'll take plenty from the (Melbourne) game."

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