Benji Marshall has vowed to solve the Wests Tigers' halves crisis internally, rather than look for players like Jarome Luai on the open market. Luai is the most high-profile player who hit the open market on November 1 and is free to negotiate with rival clubs for a deal beyond 2024.
The five-eighth has one year remaining on his contract with the Panthers, but will likely have to take a significant pay cut if he wants to remain at Penrith. The Panthers reportedly have a new deal on the table for Luai worth $850,000 per season, but the State of Origin player will be able to attract upwards of $1 million at other clubs.
Luai has been linked to the Wests Tigers in recent weeks due to the fact he grew up idolising Marshall - who has taken over as the Tigers' head coach. The pair played together for the Maori All-Stars at the end of Marshall's career and struck up a friendship.
The Tigers have somewhat of a halves crisis to solve, with Luke Brooks leaving the club for Manly and Adam Doueihi set to miss the majority of the 2024 season. They've signed Jayden Sullivan from the Dragons and Aidan Sezer from the UK, but Doueihi and Sezer are both off contract at the end of 2024.
With speculation mounting that the Tigers will make a play for Luai, Marshall moved to hose down the talk on Friday. "One thing I'm not going to do is talk about recruitment publicly," the coach told reporters. "Because it does have the effect to ruin a deal if stuff gets out or stuff gets leaked.
"All players that come into the market, you've got to have a look at, especially if they're marquee players (like Luai). But we've signed halves, we've got four halves for the season going into it. We'll prioritise that at the moment."
Sezer and Sullivan are set to battle for the two halves positions with highly-rated young recruit Latu Fainu. Sullivan and Fainu have both signed long-term, although Fainu is yet to debut at NRL level after rising through the ranks at Manly.
"Everyone's got ideas about what I should do, but one thing I've made really clear with the players is no-one's guaranteed a spot," Marshall said. "I don't care how old you are, how experienced you are, if you earn it through hard training in the pre-season, you're more than likely going to play."
Can Benji Marshall turn the Wests Tigers around?
Marshall has a mountain of work to do after the Tigers secured back-to-back wooden spoons in 2023. The joint venture club hasn't played finals footy in 12 years.
"I've had a good think about that and one thing I'm not going to do is talk about where we finish, top eight, top four or any of that," Marshall said. "What I will say though is that we'll be a process-driven team that will have a way we want to play and a style. If we can reach those outcomes every week, that'll be a pass for us and we'll see where that gets us."
The Bulldogs are also said to be keen on snaring Luai, who would join a number of former Panthers players at Canterbury. Stephen Crichton, Viliame Kikau and Matt Burton have all moved across to the Bulldogs in recent years after becoming stars at the Panthers.
Last month, Panthers coach Ivan Cleary said it would be a "risk" to offer Luai big money considering he's never been the chief playmaker at Penrith. Luai had a telling response just 24 hours later when he posted an anime-style image of himself on Instagram with the caption "know your worth". The post was accompanied by the 50 Cent song 'Hustler’s Ambition' from the film 'Get Rich Or Die Tryin’.
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