The chance to finally be given “the keys to the team” was the driving factor behind Jarome Luai’s decision to move from NRL heavyweights Penrith to long-time strugglers Wests Tigers in 2025.
The biggest trade saga of the NRL off-season came to an end on Wednesday when Penrith’s triple premiership-winning five-eighth announced his future plans.
Luai had been linked with the Tigers and Canterbury for months after it became apparent the high-flying Panthers would not be able to match their offers of a seven-figure salary.
Confirming his move to the back-to-back wooden spooners on a five-year deal, Luai insisted the call had not been just about finances.
“People think it would just be (money); but it was getting the keys to the team, that was the other motivation,” he said.
Luai is untested at NRL level as a week-in, week-out organising half, a point made clear by Penrith coach Ivan Cleary as the Panthers fought to keep him.
But Nathan Cleary’s long-term lieutenant said he had become hungry for more responsibility since serving as a game-manager during Samoa’s charge to the World Cup final in 2022.
“Ever since then, I’ve longed for that,” he said.
“Being my own guy, writing my own story, was another big part of (the move). I can’t wait.”
Luai’s signing is a major coup for the Tigers, who have struggled to attract elite talent amid a 12-year finals drought.
Luai had also strongly considered a move to the Bulldogs, whose Penrith alumni include coach Cameron Ciraldo and players Stephen Crichton, Viliame Kikau and Matt Burton.
Luai revealed he had not yet informed Ciraldo, a former assistant coach at Penrith, of his decision to choose the Tigers over the Bulldogs.
“This is the phone call,” Luai said of the press conference he called on Wednesday.
“I’ve got a lot brothers there (at the Bulldogs) already, and Cam Ciraldo is like my second dad.
“That’s why the process has dragged on for quite a while … that was a tough decision.”
Tigers coach Benji Marshall, Luai’s childhood hero and a similarly flamboyant five-eighth in his playing days, was influential in the playmaker’s decision-making.
“I’ve had a great connection with Benji,” Luai said.
“I’ve seen a few headlines that (I will) go from the top to the bottom, that sort of thing.
“It resonated with me because I always back myself to win, no matter where I go.
“I’m really excited about it, I’m excited about the challenge.”
Resigned to losing their five-eighth, Penrith waived their right to a 10-day negotiation period during which they could have convinced Luai to stay put.
But they will have him back at training on Thursday after he took the week off before Christmas amid the contract saga.
Luai’s halves partner for 2025 is yet to be determined with veteran Aidan Sezer and young guns Jayden Sullivan and Latu Fainu likely to jostle at the selection table.
“(Luai’s) experience as a genuine premiership-winning playmaker will be great for us and the future of our club,” Marshall said.
“We very much look forward to welcoming Jarome and his family to our club in 2025, but right now season 2024 is our focus.”