The Samoan nucleus that was the driving force behind Penrith winning the 2021 NRL premiership can deliver a World Cup surprise next year, according to a Panthers star that will sit behind the wheel of the country’s hopes.
Five-eighth Jarome Luai combined with halfback Nathan Cleary to move Penrith around the park with deft efficiency, resulting in 44 wins from 50 matches over the past two years.
In a club lineup that contained a brotherhood of Moses Leota, Stephen Crichton, Spencer Leniu and Brian To’o, Luai believes Samoa can emulate the 2017 heroics of Pacific neighbours Tonga reaching the World Cup semi-finals for the first time.
Tonga, who had embarrassed New Zealand on their home turf in the tournament, has since gone on to claim boilover wins over Australia and England during 2019 in further historic rugby league firsts.
The new world No.3 ranks behind New Zealand and England but ahead of traditional giants Australia, and has the Tongans aiming for a fairytale world title, a feat the fledgling league power has not even come close to achieving over their past nine Rugby World Cup campaigns.
But Tonga’s recent performances has Luai confidently predicting the world No.8 Samoans can follow the lead of their Polynesian cousins.
“That is probably the mindset for me right now,” Luai told a recent episode of the Bloke in a Bar Australian sport podcast.
“Looking at the talent we’ve got across the board and in the NRL right now, and how many young guns that are Samoan … we can definitely rock it with the big guns.”
Samoa’s winless 2017 tournament has been cast aside after the hurt of a 38-8 loss to New Zealand, 32-18 to Tonga, 46-0 to Australia and a 14-14 draw to Ireland.
The 24-year-old debuted in that World Cup before Panthers selectors gave him a nod for his first NRL appearance.
Luai admitted to initially feeling “so scared to be in that environment”.
So much so that he once remarked the phone call from then-coach Matt Parish to inform the rookie that he was joining Samoa was thought to be a prank.
“To meet the boys first and foremost was a buzz for me,” Luai said.
“But would they even accept me to play next to them?
“Because I hadn’t even played an NRL game by then so that was a massive hurdle for me.”
That trepidation of representing Toa Samoa, loosely translated the Warriors, was eased after Joseph Paulo took Luai under his wing.
The veteran backrower whose career started at Penrith before moving onto stints with Parramatta, Cronulla at the time, St Helens in England and now Toulouse Olympique in France has fast-tracked the big occasion for Luai.
“He was a mad influence for me,” Luai said.
“He was my roomie too, so he was like the older guy looking after the younger kid sort of thing.
“I was really grateful to him.”