Penrith are adamant Jarome Luai will be able to withstand a battering from Melbourne’s forwards after the star five-eighth was cleared to play in the Panthers’ push for a fourth straight grand final.
Four weeks after dislocating his left shoulder against Parramatta in round 26, Luai will complete a miraculous recovery when he plays in Friday night’s preliminary final against the Storm at Accor Stadium.
While there were fears externally the injury would bring a premature end to Luai’s season, Penrith were confident he could return for week three of the finals after scans cleared him of ligament damage.
Luai returned to contact training last week and has got through the build up to Friday’s game unscathed.
“We’ve seen a lot of guys at this club do some pretty amazing things,” coach Ivan Cleary said on Thursday.
“From the moment we got the information the medical staff were very confident.
“He’s just put his head down, worked very hard and ticked every box every week.
“We just had to get to the game, which we’ve been able to do. It’s all systems go.”
In other good news for Penrith, centre Izack Tago has been cleared to return from a pectoral strain, while Nathan Cleary is in no doubt despite the training mishap that left him with a sore finger.
The Panthers are under no illusions it will be anyone but Luai who gets the most attention from Melbourne’s big men.
Nelson Asofa-Solomona could be an option to play at right back row for the Storm, allowing him to start the game running straight at Penrith’s No.6.
Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy on Thursday made no secret of his plan to test out Luai’s shoulder, admitting the Storm want to push the NSW representative to make a “few tackles”.
Panthers second-rower Scott Sorensen has spoken this week about being ready to protect Luai, but Ivan Cleary insists the 26-year-old can handle himself.
“He’s a big boy, he’ll be all right,” the coach said.
A win for the Panthers will put them in rare air.
Only the Storm side of 2006-2009, which was later found to be over the salary cap by a combined $1 million across those seasons, has reached four straight grand finals in the NRL era.
Prior to that, Parramatta (1981-84), St George (1956-66) and South Sydney (1967-71) are the only other teams to make at least four successive deciders since grand finals became mandatory in 1954.
“They probably realise (how big this streak is), but it’s just another game we want to win,” Ivan Cleary said.
“We have been here before and we know our game works. We believe in it but tomorrow’s a new day and new circumstances, new team.
“There’s going to be things that get thrown at us we’re not expecting which you have to deal with.”
TEAMS TO REACH AT LEAST FOUR STRAIGHT GRAND FINALS*
South Sydney 1967-1971
St George 1956-1966
(*since grand finals became mandatory in 1954)