Jarome Luai ruled fit to play in preliminary final amid NRL's embarrassing' move

The league is giving away free tickets amid fears there will be thousands of empty seats at Accor Stadium on Friday night.

Jarome Luai
Jarome Luai is fit to play in the NRL preliminary final between the Panthers and Storm.

The Panthers have declared Jarome Luai fit to return for their preliminary final clash with the Storm, for which the NRL has been forced to give away free tickets. Panthers coach Ivan Cleary confirmed on Thursday morning that Luai and centre Izack Tago would both play in the blockbuster showdown on Friday night.

Luai hasn't played since dislocating his shoulder five weeks ago against Parramatta. "This game was always the one that the medical staff planned on (Jarome) being back for," Cleary said. "We just had to get to the game, which we have been able to do."

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Meanwhile, the NRL has started giving away free tickets to the preliminary final at Accor Stadium, with the blockbuster clash nowhere near a sell-out. While the Broncos and Warriors game at Suncorp Stadium sold out within an hour, it's a very different story in Sydney.

There are still thousands of tickets available for the Penrith and Melbourne clash, with organisers struggling to sell out the 83,000-capacity Accor Stadium at Sydney Olympic Park. Fans took to social media on Wednesday afternoon to show some of the messages they'd received from the NRL, offering free tickets for the preliminary final.

One person was given two free tickets to the Panthers-Storm clash with their purchase of grand final tickets, while another person had been offered four free tickets. Questions are starting to emerge about the decision to play the game at Accor, given the Olympic Park venue isn't particularly close for Penrith fans.

All Sydney-based clubs would struggle to sell out an 83,000-seat stadium on their own, and the fact the Panthers are playing an interstate team doesn't help the cause. Many have suggested it would have been wiser to hold the game at CommBank Stadium in Parramatta, given it's much closer to Penrith and only holds 30,000.

Nathan Cleary, pictured here celebrating a try with Penrith Panthers teammates.
Nathan Cleary (L) celebrates a try with Penrith Panthers teammates. (Photo by Izhar Khan/Getty Images)

The NRL is now facing the embarrassing possibility of having hoards of empty seats at Accor Stadium for what will be the biggest club game in Sydney so far this year. It also comes after Penrith chief executive Brian Fletcher said it was 'unfair' that the Broncos get to play a preliminary final at their 52,000-seat home ground, while the Panthers have to play at a neutral venue. Teams are allowed to host finals games at suburban grounds in the first week of the finals, but BlueBet Stadium in Penrith isn't deemed appropriate for games from the semi-finals onwards.

“It should be that everybody has the chance to play their semi-finals at home in week one and week two. But, after that, every other final should be played at a neutral, major stadium," Fletcher told News Corp. “Brisbane gets two semi-finals at home and it’s unfair. Why should they play two semi-finals at home?"

Fans took to social media to call on Sydney-based NRL supporters to get out to Accor Stadium on Friday night so the stadium doesn't look empty. Some labelled it 'embarrassing' and 'pathetic' that more Panthers fans hadn't snapped up tickets, with travel and the cost of tickets also raised as potential issues.

NRL under fire over kick-off time for Warriors game

The NRL is also facing backlash over the decision to schedule the Broncos and Warriors game at 7.50pm in Brisbane, which will be 9.50pm in New Zealand - meaning fans across the ditch will be forced to stay up until around midnight to watch their team. It will be a similar story if the Warriors make the grand final, which will kick-off at 7.30pm in Sydney.

Reads 'NRL Finals 2023' with the cut out images of three players throwing a football - Cameron Munster, Nathan Cleary and Reece Walsh, with a backdrop of a football stadium.
Discover more of our NRL Finals coverage.

But NRL boss Andrew Abdo said this week that there are no plans to alter the start time of the grand final. “At this stage there are no plans to move the kick-off regardless of which teams are playing in the competition,” he said. “We have contracted positions for good reasons around these kick-off times.

“It’s around about this time every year that we have the debate about moving the kick-off earlier (in the day). We’re really comfortable with the (kick-off time) because it’s a full day of football. The grand final is pretty unique and special for our sport because we have three games of football. It’s pretty entertaining, we have fans there from early (in the day) and a 7:30pm kick-off means that goes all around Australia in prime time.”

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