“I spoke to Benji once or twice and I was star-struck. I didn’t say much.”
Luai must now find his voice at Penrith as he prepares to replace the game’s ultimate chatterbox, James Maloney. The NSW star’s departure for France has left the No.6 jersey vacant and Luai shapes as the logical replacement.
The 22-year-old will get first opportunity to become the permanent halves partner of Nathan Cleary, rekindling a combination that brought premiership success at under-20s level.
“Not having Jimmy [Maloney] around now, you realise how much of a leader he was and how much impact he had on our side,” Luai said.
“I’ve got to step into that role and lift the group a bit above where it’s been in previous years. I’ve learnt that from Jimmy.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in what I can bring to the team and my abilities.
“We’ve got a lot of competition out here, we’re all fighting for our spots. The young boys are keeping me and Nathan on our toes and we have to be at our best. It’s a big season for us after the season we had last year.
“My goal now is to win a premiership. People think we’re a long way from it now, but one big year and it’s all in front of you.”
Luai may have supported the Tigers in his youth, but he is very much a Panther these days. The Samoan international grew up in Mt Druitt and despite becoming a father himself, will continue to live with his parents until he helps them pay off their mortgage.
“Once that gets sorted, me and my partner and baby will get our own space,” he said. “Until then, I’ll look after mum and dad, they are No.1 for me.”
Like Marshall early in his career, Luai is a livewire with ball in hand. While Cleary will provide the steadying influence the Panthers need, the five-eighth offers the X-factor that could propel the side back into the finals.
“We’re close mates off the field; having that helps us on the field,” he said.
“I’m a bit cheekier and more of a pest. Everyone knows what Nath is like, he’s got a cool head. We’re a bit different, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
“Who we are on the field explains who we are off the field. Nath controls the side and I play what is in front of us, try to create an opportunity for myself or the boys.
“We’re very different players and that’s a good thing.”
Adrian Proszenko is the Chief Rugby League Reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald.