Furore over Wests Tigers’ doctored Jarome Luai image exposes awkward NRL farce

The worst kept secret in rugby league was confirmed on Wednesday when Jarome Luai announced he was defecting from Penrith to the Wests Tigers.

Luai called his own press conference and confirmed he would be joining the Tigers on a five-year deal from 2025 after one last season with the Panthers. The contract is believed to be worth more than $6 million.

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It is huge news for the Tigers — and coach Benji Marshall, who has finally landed the big fish recruit the club has desperately chased.

Luai said leaving Penrith was “probably the toughest decision of my career and probably life so far”.

“Definitely gotten a lot more attention than what we would have liked these past few months,” he added.

“The purpose of this was to clear everything up and get everything out of the way out of respect and curtesy for the year ahead for my team and my teammates in 2024.

“So without further ado, for 2025 I’ll be heading to the Wests Tigers to continue my career.

“The obvious reason was it was a great opportunity for me to provide and create for my family, and also to create for myself.

“I’ve had a great connection with Benji (Marshall), we’ve spoken about the future and what he sees in me and moving forward. I’m really excited about it.”

After missing out on marquee recruits for years, the Tigers trumpeted their new signing on social media — posting a mock up of Luai in a Tigers jersey on Instagram.

According to the Daily Telegraph, the photoshop job didn’t go down well with the Panthers and the Tigers deleted the post, changing it to a collage of Luai in a NSW Blues jersey and notably not in Panthers uniform.

The Panthers haven’t yet posted about Luai’s departure on Instagram.

The petty social media drama highlights an awkward reality of the NRL’s transfer system that allows players to sign with a team more than a year in advance.

Luai, who will chase a fourth premiership in 2024, isn’t the first player to face that dilemma and he won’t be the last.

Stephen Crichton leaves Penrith as a premiership hero — having scored tries in four consecutive grand finals — and will be sorely missed when he suits up for the Bulldogs this season.

An emotional Jack Wighton committed to the South Sydney Rabbitohs midway through last season and will form a super team with Latrell Mitchell and Cody Walker after spending his entire career at the Raiders.

The Panthers said they were “disappointed” Luai had decided to leave and acknowledged the three-time reigning premiers have a salary cap squeeze.

“As publicly stated previously, the club believes that as a three-time premiership player and international representative, Jarome has earnt the right to explore the open market and although the club is disappointed by the outcome, it respects Jarome’s choice,” the Panthers said.

“We acknowledge that the situation is compounded by salary cap capacity due to the club’s recent success,” Panthers Rugby League chief executive Matt Cameron said.

“Jarome is in the process of recovering from shoulder surgery that he underwent in October and his rehabilitation to return for the upcoming season is the club’s major priority.”

Cameron added: “As the club has shown in previous years, despite agreeing to terms with another NRL club for future seasons, we look forward to Jarome remaining at the Panthers for the 2024 season as we prepare not only for the World Club Challenge against Wigan Warriors but also another premiership defence.”

Last year, NRL supremo Phil Gould called for the competition to introduce a trade windows and a draft system.

“This comes back to what I’m going to say — draft, trade windows,” he said.

“The movement of players between NRL clubs has been flawed throughout history. We have never negotiated this back with the players’ association.

“We’ve done four or five CBAs in a row now and have never once tried to negotiate what is in the best long-term interests of the game, which is a draft system or at least trade windows.”

Luai’s press conference comes after it emerged Penrith had waived its right of reply to launch one final campaign to hold onto him through the controversial 10-day cooling off period.

The Tigers haven’t made the top eight since 2011, the longest finals drought in the NRL.

Marshall said in a statement released by the Tigers: “We are super excited to announce the signing of Jarome for the 2025 season on a five-year deal.

“His experience as a genuine premiership-winning playmaker will be great for us and the future of our club.

“We love the way Jarome plays his footy and even better, he is a great person.

“We very much look forward to welcoming Jarome and his family to our club in 2025, but right now, season 2024 is our focus.”

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