Luai welcomes Burton battle for Panthers No.6 jersey

Jarome Luai has embraced the challenge from teenage playmaker Matt Burton for Penrith's vacant five-eighth spot, saying they will drive each other to improve.

Luai is expected to get first shot at replacing the departed James Maloney having waited patiently over the past two seasons, stepping up capably in the halves when required or playing off the bench.

But he knows that 19-year-old Burton is not far away after impressing this year in his first and only NRL appearance.

Burton has thrown down the gauntlet early by excelling in pre-season fitness drills. However, 22-year-old Luai can only see the battle as a good thing. 

"We're helping each other out," Luai told NRL.com after training in oppressive heat and smoke on Thursday morning.

"Matty's a good kid and he's got some real talent. So we can help each other out and be more competitive and be hard on each other and we'll only become better players.

"There are always other boys fighting for spots and we've got a lot of young talent here, so I need a big pre-season to lock down that jersey."

Young Panthers playmaker Matt Burton.
Young Panthers playmaker Matt Burton. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

The pair have an ideal mentor in former NSW and Australian pivot Trent Barrett, who has returned to the Panthers as an assistant to Ivan Cleary after a year in the coaching wilderness.

The ex-Manly coach is tasked with reinvigorating the team's attack after Penrith scored the fourth-fewest points in the league and missed the finals in 2019.

Luai, who remembers doing a kicking session with Barrett as a schoolboy a few years ago, said the 42-year-old's influence is already apparent.

"It's good to have him back now, he's been really awesome for us," Luai said.

"He runs all our attack. He's been really clinical in his explanation and simple as well.

"He explains everything as much as you need to and you're able to get out there and do what you need to do."

Luai, who returned to training on Monday, believes spending time as a livewire interchange forward last season has made him a more rounded playmaker.

"It's really helped my defence and I really respect the middle boys for the job that they do in there," the Samoan representative said.

"It's sort of opened my eyes a bit more to what's going on there in both offense and defence.

"It was a different kind of experience for me in there and it's something I'll take on board. I pretty much know what the boys are thinking in the middle now."

Panthers rookie Matt Burton with Penrith fans in 2019.
Panthers rookie Matt Burton with Penrith fans in 2019. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

In Luai's favour in the race for the No.6 jumper is his connection with halfback Nathan Cleary, who he considers a "close mate".

The duo helped Penrith to the 2015 under-20s title and Luai hopes to enjoy similar success in the top grade.

"To have Nath there by my side is awesome," Luai said.

"Coming through the grades, SG Ball and all that, it's pretty cool to look back now and see how far we've come.

"We're different kinds of people and different personalities and it's pretty cool because we're different kinds of players as well."

They'll have to wait to rekindle their partnership at training, though, with Cleary currently on light duties as he recovers from foot surgery.