Jarome Luai defends Nathan Cleary after 'arrogant' move ripped by fans

The Penrith Panthers captain drew the ire of NRL fans after the World Club Challenge against St Helens.

Nathan Cleary, pictured here performing his 'ice in my veins' celebration.
Nathan Cleary came under fire for his 'ice in my veins' celebration. Image: Getty/Fox Sports

Jarome Luai has leapt to the defence of teammate Nathan Cleary after the Panthers captain was accused of being 'arrogant' after his game-levelling conversion in the World Club Challenge. Cleary nailed his kick from the sideline to knot the score at 12-12 and send the match against St Helens to golden point.

The star halfback turned around after the conversion went over and pointed towards his forearm - a gesture to say "I've got ice in my veins". The move is frequently seen in American sports like basketball and baseball when someone makes a clutch play at an important moment.

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However some fans weren't impressed with Cleary's actions and thought the Panthers captain was being too 'cocky' and 'arrogant'. The backlash intensified when St Helens eventually prevailed 13-12 in extra time.

“Big head? Nah, definitely not,” Luai said when asked about Cleary's actions on Monday. “He has earned what he has got and where he is at now. He has worked every metre for it. He will keep doing his thing and he has my full support.

“That’s all in the moment. That was a pretty big pressure kick that he pulled off. He has stepped up in a lot of those moments.

"If people are talking crap about that, it’s pretty crazy because he has stepped up in a lot of those moments. He’s probably our go-to guy and he is always going to step up in the big moments."

Luai said the Panthers' loss to St Helens was a wake-up cll and reality check for the back-to-back premiers. "It's a bit of both I think," he said.

"A reality check definitely. Every team in this comp is hard to beat and watching a few trial games over the weekend there are some good teams out there. All the teams are coming out fresh and ready to go, so we're going to have to keep getting better as we go."

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The Panthers look slightly understrength compared to the past two years after losing Viliame Kikau to the Bulldogs and Api Koroisau to the Wests Tigers. They will also be without Taylan May after the winger suffered a ruptured ACL in the World Club Challenge, while Charlie Staines has also moved to the Tigers.

Luke Garner and Tyrone Peachey have gone the other way, joining the Panthers from Wests. Back-rower Garner will have enormous shoes to fill after Kikau's exit.

“Kiks has always been there on my side, but that’s what footy is about. It’s changing, and teams change,” Luai said.

“But I am stoked to have ‘Garns’ next to me. We have had a pretty good five weeks together. I am happy to have got out there and had our first hit out and continue on the combination.

“It’s a building thing and it’s a long year. It was our first game, and I didn’t expect our best footy in the first game of the year."

Jarome Luai, pictured here after Penrith's loss to St Helens in the World Club Challenge.
Jarome Luai looks on after Penrith's loss to St Helens in the World Club Challenge. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Mitch Kenny will be the starting hooker this year after Koroisau's exit. “I have played a lot of footy with Mitch and know what he is capable of,” Luai said.

“He is an awesome footy player. We need him to be great for our footy side this year and I have real confidence in Mitch.

“We faced that challenge last year; we lost some players. And the year before that. It’s going to be the same every year. That’s what NRL is about. It’s about adapting and evolving your game. That’s what we look forward to doing.”

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