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3 lessons Luai and the Tigers must learn from Burton’s early Bulldogs woes


jarome luai, wests tigers

Jarome Luai isn’t the first Panthers five-eighth to arrive at a struggling club with massive expectations. What can he and the Tigers learn from Matt Burton’s early Bulldogs struggles?

For one glorious year, Jarome Luai and Matt Burton starred together on Penrith’s left edge, winning the 2021 Grand Final. In that match, it was Luai’s silky hands feeding a rampaging Burton into acres of space to open the scoring against Souths, who contained the Penrith five-eighths future head coach, Benji Marshall.

Matt Burton traded Penrith for Belmore in 2022, arriving with heavy expectations of revitalising one of rugby league’s underwhelming clubs’ fortunes. So far, Burton’s Bulldogs life has been mixed. There have been flashes of both brilliance and mediocrity, with plenty of lessons learnt along the way.

His faulty start is more a by-product of poor planning and management as opposed to anything Burton’s done. Sure, his performances haven’t been lights out but the surrounding structure has been absent of the qualities necessary for his flourishing; notably a dominant forward pack and ship-steadying halfback.

With their own marquee on his way in 2025, the Wests Tigers are perfectly positioned to learn from the failures of Matt Burton’s start to his Bulldogs career. Doing so could facilitate a Tigers revival quicker than expected.

jarome luai
Benji Marshall’s West Tigers have the entirety of 2024 to prepare well for Jarome Luai’s arrival

What can the Wests Tigers learn from Matt Burton’s early Bulldogs failings?

Settle on Jarome Luai’s halves partner early, and stick with him

One thing Canterbury has been guilty of since Matt Burton’s arrival is lacking conviction in who partners him in the halves. In his two seasons at the Bulldogs, Burton’s shared playmaking duties with; Kyle Flanagan, Jake Averillo, Brandon Wakeham, Toby Sexton, Josh Reynolds, Karl Oloapu and Khaled Rajab.

That’s seven partners in Burton’s 47 games for the Bulldogs at an average of 6.7 games per partner. You don’t need to be Phil Gould or Warren Ryan to understand such lacking consistency will have untold negative benefits not only on Burton’s performances but those of the wider team.

Of the seven, Kyle Flanagan’s case is the most interesting. After Burton’s announcement, it seemed very clear that Flanagan was his natural fit in the halves for the Bulldogs. Yet, in Burton’s first pre-season, he was shafted as Jake Averillo was blooded as Burton’s partner, before returning to the starting side and featuring 20 times in 2022.

While this isn’t to say Flanagan was the answer; his relationship with the Bulldogs and in fact rugby league more broadly is complex. At one point though he was viewed as the best option to pair with Burton, a partnership robbed of reaching whatever its potential was by a lack of patience and planning.

matt burt image
Matt Burton’s life at the Bulldogs has been a cocktail of frustration and brilliance

Certainly, something similar is likely to play out at the Wests Tigers in 2024. Aiden Sezer is signed for 2024. A short solution to steer the club into the Luai era, Sezer will almost certainly spend the season at halfback.

Just who is paired with him is where the Bulldogs’ shortcomings must be followed at Campbelltown. Jayden Sullivan is a promising young half whose NRL career today has been characterised by half-chances and bench inclusion.

Latu Fainu, brought to the club from Manly, is widely viewed as one of the NRL’s brightest halves.

Whether Benji Marshall is inclined to use Sullivan as Luai’s partner, or Fainu, he needs to make a decision and stick to it. Use 2024 as a chance for these guys to get the relevant reps in, develop relationships with the rest of the side, and get attuned to the increased physicality of the NRL.

Developing Luai’s partner will not only take patience from Benji, the coaching staff, and the fans but also a tempering of expectations. It’s unlikely Sullivan or Fainu will bring success now. However, developed correctly, and alongside Luai, and they just might do so down the line.

Don’t make him something he isn’t

For a brief spell in 2023, injuries and form meant the Bulldogs experimented with Matt Burton at halfback. In theory, it made sense; with control of the side, Burton would receive more touches of the footy, be more involved, and have increased chances to show his magic.

Practically, it never worked. At halfback, Burton got the wrong touches for his style of play. He got halfback touches; in the middle of the park, close to the ruck, simple balls or dropping players under. Boring football for such an exciting talent. It didn’t work.

Matt Burton is not a halfback. Trying to make him one, even briefly, caused more harm than good. Fans doubted his talents when he was unable to throw the surrounding side on his back and drag them to victory.

Jarome Luai can play halfback. He’s shown that with Samoa, who he led to the 2022 Rugby League World Cup final. It’s important the Tigers don’t try to make him the type of halfback he isn’t.

Luai isn’t Nathan Cleary or Cooper Cronk. Even when he’s donning the #7, he’s not going to kick to the corners, run sporadically, and control the tempo of a game. Instead, he’s going to be Jarome Luai regardless of what number’s on his back.

The Samoan international will thrive off the cuff, run often, skip around defences, playing a brand of footy that resembles structured chaos. Benji Marshall will know the type of halfback Luai is; late-era Benji was cut in a similar mould.

It’s of paramount importance for Benji to form a system in 2024 that will be conducive to Jarome Luai’s style of play. That might include running more of their attack through Api Koroisau, a crafty, game-controlling dummy-half who can alleviate some pressure of guiding the side around the park.

Short-term, this might hurt Sezer and the Tigers. Long-term, however, is where the dividends will be reaped.

Find greater squad continuity

Between 2021 and 2022, Canterbury culled half their top 30 squad as part of a much-needed roster refresh following years of decay and declining performances. Burton found out how difficult it was to hit the ground running in a side as new as he was.

While nothing indicates the Wests Tigers are on a similar trajectory, they’ve only got a handful of players off-contract at the end of 2024, they need to ensure they keep most of their stars around for Luai’s arrival if they’re any hope of him turning the club’s tides.

Kyle Robbins
Kyle Robbins
Kyle is a senior sports writer and producer at Only Sports who lives and breathes sport, with a particular burning passion for everything soccer, rugby league, and cricket. You’ll most commonly find him getting overly hopeful about the Bulldogs and Chelsea’s prospects. Find Kyle on LinkedIn.

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