Nathan Cleary has vowed there will be no repeat of the Penrith Panthers' 'hangover' that marred the start of their 2023 season, but the three-time reigning premiers are set to be without Jarome Luai in the World Club Challenge. The Panthers suffered a surprise 13-12 loss at home to Super League champions St Helens in the World Club Challenge last year, which then flowed into the NRL season.
Ivan Cleary's side lost two of their first three NRL games and found themselves in an uncharacteristic slump while chasing a third consecutive title. They eventually righted the ship and went on to claim premiership glory once again, and Nathan Cleary is adamant there will be no repeat hangover to start 2024.
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"It kind of was a bit of a hangover last year," Cleary told AAP ahead of this year's World Club Challenge at DW Stadium in Wigan on February 25. "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."
Penrith have won three consecutive premierships and three minor premierships in a four-year period of absolute dominance. But the current side haven't managed to win the World Club Challenge during that time.
No Penrith side of yesteryear has won the world title either, with premiership-winning teams of 1991 and 2003 both losing to their British hosts as well. "That's why it's such a great opportunity for us. We as a club have never won it," Cleary said.
Jarome Luai won't make his return in World Club Challenge
The Panthers were hoping to have Luai back for the clash with Wigan, after the five-eighth re-injured his shoulder in the grand final win over the Broncos. But coach Cleary reportedly Panthers fans on Monday night that he's not ready to return just yet.
“He won’t play in the World Club Challenge because he’s not just ready,” Cleary said at the premiere of a documentary showcasing the Panthers' feats over the last few years. “He can continue his rehab, and he deserves to be there as a reward for everything he’s done for our team and our club. He’s super close, I just want him staying with the team and training.”
Luai previously said 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 off-season surgery after aggravating the injury in the grand final, after he dislocated the shoulder in a game against Parramatta late in the 2023 regular season.
Luai, who will move to the Wests Tigers in 2025, has spent the majority of the pre-season getting his shoulder back to full strength away from his teammates. Over the weekend he made it through an opposed session unscathed, and was thought to be trending towards playing in the World Club Challenge. Nevertheless, he appears to be firming for a return in round one.
"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."
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