Jarome Luai is set to leave Penrith at the end of 2024, with Wests Tigers the front-runners to sign the three-time NRL premiership-winning five-eighth.
Reports on Saturday suggested Luai was on the verge of accepting a long-term deal at the Tigers, who are able to offer a seven-figure salary from 2025.
The Panthers are aware of the Tigers’ offer.
But under the NRL’s new transfer rules, the Panthers have a 10-day window to convince Luai to stay put before he can officially sign with a rival.
In an Instagram story on Saturday, Luai refuted suggestions he had already put pen to paper on a deal with the back-to-back wooden spooners, but said he would “let yous know when a deal is done”.
The mooted deal could end this off-season’s most highly publicised tussle at the player market, with the Panthers fighting to keep their star playmaker and Canterbury also interested.
Luai had been free to negotiate with rival clubs for 2025 from November and the all-conquering Panthers, working to withstand salary cap pressure, were only prepared to offer him $850,000 per year.
The Tigers, coached by Luai’s childhood hero Benji Marshall from 2024, emerged as the front-runners in recent weeks and have been ready to offer Luai a seven-figure salary.
Amid 12 years out of the finals, Wests have struggled to lure elite playmakers and had been turned down by Cam Munster, Jack Wighton and Mitch Moses since the end of the 2022 season.
Their halves have also been subject to media scrutiny through the dry spell, with Manly recruit Luke Brooks the most maligned for his inability to drag the Tigers up the table.
But with club legend Marshall installed and the entire board cleaned out this week, there is new-found optimism at the back-to-back wooden spooners.
Luai’s likely arrival leaves the Tigers’ current halves options Jayden Sullivan, Aidan Sezer and Latu Fainu jostling for the right to partner the marquee recruit from 2025.
Regardless of which man clinches a starting spot, a spine featuring Luai, hooker Api Koroisau and fullback Jahream Bula could amount to being the Tigers’ most competitive in years.
The Panthers, meanwhile, have Brad Schneider, Daine Laurie and junior prospect Jack Cole as options to play next to halfback Nathan Cleary, though Laurie is only signed for 2024.
A flamboyant ball runner known for his competitive approach, Luai has been a foil for the cool and calm Cleary through the Panthers’ 2021-2023 “three-peat”.
The 26-year-old was an elite prospect coming through the grades at Penrith and has played all 107 of his NRL games to date with the club.
Luai, a seven-time NSW representative, was dropped after the second game of this year’s State of Origin series but helped guide Samoa to the 2022 World Cup final.
He is the latest in a long list of Panthers squeezed out of the club by salary-cap pressures.
Koroisau, Matt Burton, Kurt Capewell, Viliame Kikau, Spencer Leniu and Stephen Crichton are among those to have left after tasting premiership success at Penrith.