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Panthers’ Samoan stars shine in semi-finals surge

Australia may have won the Rugby League World Cup 9s, but it was a Panthers-laden Samoa side who were the peoples’ champion.

Toa Samoa enjoyed a memorable run to the semi-finals, as they went through the group stage undefeated before falling just short of the decider at the hands of Australia. They were led by a quartet of Panthers players who each had an outstanding tournament.

Jarome Luai, Brian To’o, Moses Leota and Dean Blore were firing on all cylinders at Bankwest Stadium, and should come away with plenty to be proud of.

Viliame Kikau (Fiji), Api Koroisau (Fiji) and Malakai Watene-Zelezniak (Tonga) also had solid hit-outs for their respective nations, as the attention now turns to the Panthers’ 2020 NRL pre-season.

Here’s how each of the seven Panthers players fared at the Rugby League World Cup 9s.

Jarome Luai (Samoa)
1 try, 2 assists, 4 try involvements, 1 goal

Easily one of the best performers across the entire tournament, Jarome Luai was electric at the World Cup 9s.

The nine-a-side game suited Luai perfectly, as he was able to show off his silky skills and fancy footwork. He danced his way through opposition defences at will, crafted holes for his teammates to exploit, and guided his team around the park with pinpoint kicking accuracy.

Luai was at the heart of Samoa’s semi-finals surge, as he scored a try, assisted two and was involved in another four. His performance should give Panthers fans plenty to be excited about ahead of 2020.

Match Highlights: Samoa v Fiji

Brian To’o (Samoa)
2 tries, 1 assist

Brian To’o reasserted his authority as one of the game’s most exciting prospects with an excellent showing at the World Cup 9s.

The Panthers pocket rocket was sensational on the right wing for Samoa, putting his speed, strength and skill on show throughout the tournament. He finished up with two tries, and also assisted one to Dean Blore with a brilliant kick.

Moses Leota (Samoa)
2 tries, 1 try involvement

If his performance at the World Cup 9s is anything to go by, Moses Leota is primed for a big 2020.

Leota churned through plenty of work in the middle of the park, making some big tackles and providing quick play-the-balls to lay the platform for his side. The Panthers prop’s try-scoring instinct was on show in Samoa’s first game, as he bagged a bonus zone double.

Dean Blore (Samoa)
2 tries, 1 assist, 1 try involvement, 2 goals

After an injury-riddled 2019 season, Dean Blore saw the 9s as a chance to announce himself to the rugby league world.

The young playmaker took that chance with both hands, as he stood tall on the national stage to come up with some big plays throughout the tournament. Blore was among Samoa’s best players, as he scored two tries and assisted another with a soaring cut-out pass.

Match Highlights: Samoa v Cook Islands

Malakai Watene-Zelezniak (Tonga)
1 try, 1 try assist

Tonga fell short of the semi-finals, but that was not for a lack of effort by Malakai Watene-Zelezniak.

MWZ came up with a clutch play in extra time of Tonga’s extra time victory over Fiji, batting a kick-for-touch back into the field of play, paving the way for the match-winner. He also beat Panthers teammate Brian To’o in a footrace to assist a try in the clash with Samoa.

Match Highlights: Tonga Invitational v Fiji

Viliame Kikau (Fiji)
1 try involvement, 192 run metres, 4 tackle breaks

Fiji had a disappointing campaign, but Viliame Kikau was one of their strongest performers.

The Panthers second rower assumed playmaking responsibilities, and cleverly set up a try in Fiji’s first match by drifting wide before unloading the ball right on queue. His average 64 run metres per game were among the best of any player in the tournament.

Api Koroisau (Fiji)
3 goals

Coming out of dummy half, Api Koroisau was Fiji’s chief playmaker and had plenty of nice touches. The Panthers hooker also proved a handy goalkicker, landing three drop-goal conversions.