The Panthers will welcome South Sydney to ANZ Stadium this Saturday for the penultimate match of the season, with the victor stepping into the Grand Final ring while the other will draw the curtains on their one-of-a-kind season.
The matchup is as enticing as ever, with many battles within the war, but for the battle of boys in the No.6 jersey, it could have been very different.
For the rising star that is Jarome Luai, he will have the tough job of trying to control the red-hot Cody Walker this weekend. However, if things had gone the way of the Rabbitohs in recent years, Luai could have been the one representing Redfern.
The Penrith young gun was out of a contract on two occasions across the last several years, with the Rabbitohs as eager as any to attain his services, according to The Sydney Morning Herald’s Adrian Proszenko.
While Penrith had a plan in place to keep Luai, former and current Souths football managers Shane Richardson and Mark Ellison had pressed hard for the exciting talent.
“Richo and Mark Ellison, probably over a period of two windows, enquired about Jarome,” said his agent, Darryl Mather.
“Shane was doing work for the New Zealand Rugby League and Jarome was the captain of the Junior Kiwis at a game in Canberra. He really took Richo’s eye on and off the field.
“Mark Ellison has loved Jarome’s footy and backed it up with a few calls: ‘Can we get Luai?’
“Richo and Mark probably rang me about five or six times combined. Richo was really hot to trot.”
For Mather and the Panthers, the surge of inquiries were held off and Luai remained in Penrith, where he is now placed as one of the league’s most exciting talents.
“The boy just loves the Penrith badge and I knew he didn’t want to be anywhere else,” Mather said.
“Jarome was very patient when James Maloney was there, he took on everything in the right way.
“Not once did he ever say he wanted to look elsewhere ever. He was very patient.
“He understood the process he had to go through to get to where he is now.”
Had he have made the move to Souths, Walker perhaps wouldn’t be where he is today after making his debut at the age of 26.
The Rabbitohs half is frontrunner for the NSW Blues No.6 jumper and made his Origin debut alongside Penrith star Nathan Cleary, with the pair both looking to showcase their skills in this week’s preliminary final.
Luai, with tongue-in-cheek, suggested the younger Penrith halves will handle Walker with some ease, with the Rabbitohs star leaving any statement to be made for field.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” Walker said.
“I’m not into personal battles, it’s just about us going out there and doing the job. If we focus on one individual, the other side of the field will hurt you.
“We understand that they’ve got strike all over the park. Jarome Luai is in career-best form. He’s had a fantastic year and you’ve also got Stephen Crichton on that left edge, on the other side [Liam] Martin and Brent Naden and Nathan Cleary.
“If you focus on one particular area of their attack or their game, you miss out on stopping the other guys in their team.”
When touching on the matchup with Cleary, Walker could only commend his rival.
“He’s obviously got a great kicking game, he’s got great energy,” Walker said. “He’s a great defender, he’s been a great leader of their side this year. He’s playing on the ball more than he has in previous years, that’s a big indicator to us where the ball is going to go.
“Off the field, he’s a great guy. I roomed with him in Origin. I only played one game with him – I don’t really know his game inside out, but he’s a great player. He’s had a fantastic year.”