Reece Walsh has revealed how his connection to Jarome Luai as a young father prompted him to message his rival in the wake of their State of Origin clashes earlier this year. Walsh and Luai will go head-to-head in Sunday's NRL grand final, with the Broncos looking to stop the Panthers from winning three consecutive premierships.
Walsh and Luai have some history, stemming back to some fiery run-ins during the first two State of Origin games this year. Walsh infamously pulled Luai's hair in Game I before blasting his opponent for running away from an altercation that ensued.
Luai fired off at his critics on social media after the Blues' loss in Game II, which resulted in Queensland winning the series. It later emerged that Luai's swipe came about after he'd received death threats.
Speaking on Monday, Walsh said he was saddened that Luai had been targeted on social media and texted his rival to see if he was okay. Both players are young fathers and that means a lot to Walsh.
"I sent him a message after Game II to see how he was going and to wish him all the best with everything," Walsh revealed on Monday. "When you go out on the field you … do anything for the team. When you step off, it is a whole different thing.
"I think people forget sometimes that we are normal people with young families to go home to. When I leave here and go back to my daughter (Leila) she doesn't know what game I have lost. She doesn't care about that. She just cares if she is getting chicken nuggets."
Walsh and Luai were both sent off at the end of Game II in Brisbane, with both players later receiving fines for striking during a melee where the Panthers five-eighth head-butted the 21-year-old fullback. "It is going to be exciting. I obviously have a lot of respect for him," Walsh said of the pair's looming clash in the grand final.
"He is a young dad and he is playing with injury at the moment. That is pretty courageous. (Luai) plays with his heart on his sleeve. They are the people you want to … go out to war with. You know they are going to give you their all. I wear my heart on my sleeve too. Does he get under my skin? No he doesn't. He is fun to go up against in those battles."
Walsh also dismisses claims that Luai and his Panthers teammates are too arrogant, which has been a constant criticism throughout their reign as back-to-back champions. "I think he draws attention to the game," Walsh said. "He has got the right to do it. He has won the last two comps and puts bums on seats."
Panthers and Broncos could be dominant for years to come
Sunday's grand final will be the first involving the Panthers and Broncos, but it almost certainly won't be the last. It will also be the third in a row not featuring the Storm or Roosters, marking somewhat of a changing of the guard in the NRL.
At least one of the Storm or Roosters played in all bar five grand finals from 1999 to 2020. But with the Panthers and Broncos boasting an average player age around 25, we're sure to see them in many more grand finals across the next decade.
"With what the Broncos could potentially do and what the Panthers have already achieved, it's pretty frightening," Brisbane great Petero Civoniceva told AAP this week. "That majority of the Penrith team are of a similar age, the same as the Broncos. They've both got every potential as well to be front runners in this competition for many more years."
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