The biggest ‘learning curve’ for Penrith duo in plan to fill massive hole left by ‘mastermind’ Koroisau

Andrew Jackson from Fox Sports

When Apisai Koroisau jumps into dummy-half, a few different things go through his mind, including numbers. Always numbers.

“In certain field positions,” he explained to foxsports.com.au, “you have certain numbers from there.”

“If that’s off by one, you’ve obviously got the advantage. If there’s too many there, then the open side has got to be good.”

But in Round 23 earlier this year against South Sydney, when Koroisau had the ball on the fourth tackle with the score delicately poised at 22-all, there was no obvious overlap for him to work with.

Grand Final
*Odds are current as of 27th September 2022, 6:18am AEST
VIEW ALL SCORES

Stream every game of every round of the 2022 NRL Telstra Premiership Season Live & Ad-Break Free During Play on Kayo. New to Kayo? Start your free trial now >

Not that he had to think too much anyway. The conventional play — the expected play — was to pass the ball left, working it back towards the centre to set up for the shot at field goal.

When it comes to Koroisau though, what makes him so dangerous is you never know what to expect. And on this occasion, the crafty hooker saw an opportunity where many others wouldn’t.

“We just got to that spot, I understood there was only four and that’s enough for a one-on-one tackle,” he said.

So, with a jink left and then back to the right, Koroisau misled Keaon Koloamatangi just long enough to put a charging Liam Martin one-on-one with the smaller Isaiah Tass in the centres.

“Fortunately, Marto didn’t bomb this try as well,” Koroisau added, laughing.

Penrith’s success has come at a cost recently, parting ways with 15 players in the past two seasons alone, including State of Origin representatives Matt Burton and Kurt Capewell.

And even still the club has not only been able to sustain that success but build on it, continuing to break records and develop new talent on the pathway to another preliminary final berth.

But it is the loss of Koroisau, who is heading to the Wests Tigers at the end of this season, that may finally prove too much for this seemingly unstoppable premiership powerhouse.

‘NONE OF US REALLY KNOW’: API THE ‘MAGICIAN’ AND HIS BAG OF TRICKS

The way Koroisau operates out of dummy-half, how he so easily ducks and weaves his way through the defence, is an art form in itself.

One which Leniu can appreciate, even if it does not quite understand it all the time. That is just how good Koroisau is at his craft.

“I honestly have no idea how to answer that because I’m in awe watching him when I’m on the training paddock,” Leniu told foxsports.com.au when asked to how Koroisau mastered the art of deception at hooker.

“None of us really know. He’s just kind of like a mastermind, like a magician. I’ve had five tries this year and all of those tries are off to his deception. He’s just the mastermind. He’s a really, really smart guy.”

Spencer Leniu celebrates after scoring a try, with Apisai Koroisau setting it. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

It is like playing poker, but Koroisau does all the bluffing with his eyes and feet, fooling the opposition defence into even the smallest of adjustments. Then the cunning Koroisau strikes, like he did to put Martin over in that 26-22 win over South Sydney.

“That subtlety is one of the reasons why Api is in the mix with the best hookers in the game,” Blues advisor and Panthers legend Greg Alexander told foxsports.com.au.

“In terms of that subtlety I don’t think there is any better with that ability to create deception and fool defenders and engage defenders to create space for his runners.

“Apart from Api being tough and a good hitter in defence, that’s the strength of his dummy-half play — his subtlety and ability to put players into space and hold the ball up.”

Apisai Koroisau is deceptive from dummy-half. Picture: NRL PhotosSource: Supplied

Before Koroisau’s return in 2019, the Panthers had made the finals for three-straight years but were seemingly stuck in a frustrating cycle of being ‘that team with potential’ and nothing more.

They were close to being genuine contenders, potentially one missing piece away from making that leap. Of course, the departure of James Maloney and emergence of Jarome Luai in the halves alongside Cleary played a large role in them taking that leap.

But those two still needed someone experienced, a calming presence with a touch of creative flair to ease the pressure and found it in Koroisau — that missing piece.

Peter Wallace, Sione Katoa, Mitch Kenny, Wayde Egan, Mitch Rein and James Segeyaro all started at hooker for the Panthers between 2016 and 2019, combining to play 102 games.

In just 23 games this year alone, Koroisau falls just six try assists and eight linebreak assists short of what all six managed starting in those four years at Penrith.

Apisai Koroisau has been in fine form this year.Source: FOX SPORTS

With Cleary and Luai much more experienced, the Panthers are in a better position to deal with Koroisau’s exit, although there is no doubting they will be worse off without him.

But the learning process for Koroisau’s understudies has already begun.

THE ‘LEARNING CURVE’ AS KENNY AND LUKE FORGE THEIR OWN PATH

Of course, when it comes to Koroisau’s game, there are some things that just can’t be taught.

“He’s a freak,” Soni Luke told foxsports.com.au.

Luke, who Leniu described as a “miniature Api’, is likely to provide spark off the bench next year with Mitch Kenny the new starting hooker, having extended until the end of 2024.

Koroisau said he has been trying to give the pair a few tactical tips before he leaves for the Tigers, although like Leniu, sometimes they just finding themselves looking on in awe.

“Me and Mitch just sit back [at training] and watch and think how does he do it?” Luke said.

“We try it ourselves and probably can’t get it as good as him.”

That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing though. Luke and Kenny may never see the game the way Koroisau does, but they need to develop their own playing style anyway.

Mitch Kenny is constantly improving his game. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)Source: AAP

“That’s just the learning curve of never trying to be someone else,” Kenny told foxsports.com.au.

“[You take] what you can from their game that suits yours and the little add-ons that you can make. Certainly things around deception, I don’t ever think I’ll have it like Api.

“That’s a real strength in his game. It’s not always the big plays but he’s just constantly asking questions, look one way pass the other, body leans and stuff like that.

“I’m just learning, not only just game sense off him, like the fundamental sort of stuff on how to read a game of footy as a nine.”

That fundamental stuff did not always come easy to Kenny though, who in the space of a few weeks went from Penrith’s groundskeeping team to the NRL, all while playing out of position.

“That whole 2019 season, that was my first year playing hooker and every game was a learning curve,” he said.

“I didn’t really know what I was doing too much. I was just trying to get the ball to whoever was louder — Nathan [Cleary] or Jimmy Maloney — and just made sure I made my tackles. I was just happy to be in first grade and obviously the last three years have been about me developing not just as a hooker but as a footy player in general.”

Mitch Kenny was a groundskeeper a few weeks before becoming an NRL player. Picture by Damian ShawSource: News Corp Australia

For Luke though, his NRL debut should have come much sooner, once looking destined to be just the latest in a long line of rising stars to come out of Penrith’s production system.

“He was a star as a 20s player,” Greg Alexander said of Luke, who in 2015 captained the Panthers to glory in the then-Holden Cup.

Dylan Edwards, Jarome Luai, James Fisher-Harris, Moses Leota, Corey Harawira-Naera and Brent Naden were among Luke’s teammates, now all well-established NRL players.

Even Manly superstar fullback Tom Trbojevic was on the opposition team.

But consistent bad luck with injuries, including three shoulder reconstructions, as well as the depth of Penrith’s wide talent pool meant Luke had to wait, watching as his teammates realised their dreams.

Soni Luke celebrating the Grand Final win with Jarome Luai, Tyrone May and Corey Harawira-Naera. (Photo by Renee McKay/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

“That was tough, seeing all your good mates play first grade and play continuously and play well,” he said.

“It’s something I always wished and probably thought I may not get there as well.”

But even in those tough moments, when it looked like it just would not happen, there were still two rays of shining light — his daughters Keani and Milani.

“That was the best,” he said, smiling.

“I had kids young. During my injuries, it made me realise what’s important.”

Still, even after the shoulder reconstructions and a pectoral tear, there was more left in Luke.

He had been part of Penrith’s system since 2008, when he was 12 years old, and as much as destiny seemed to be working against him, this was just meant to be.

During the summer, Luke was offered a train-and-trial contract with the Panthers.

“[I was] getting old now, so probably knew it was my last shot,” he said.

“I was training really hard and knew I had to impress in the summer to try and get a deal. I have had a couple of injuries so I just wanted to show them I was fit and strong, ready to make that move into first grade or consistently into reserve grade as well.”

Soni Luke (right) in his junior playing days.Source: News Corp Australia

The game he had given so much of himself to was finally starting to give a little back. Then in a team meeting ahead of Penrith’s Round 7 game against Canberra, Luke finally heard his name called out.

“I don’t know... I don’t know how to describe it,” he said.

“It was a lot of relief of course and excitement and I wanted to tell the fam as well and all the boys were there getting around me. It was pretty crazy.”

For Leniu, who went from Jersey Flegg to NRL in a matter of months, Luke “epitomises what resilience is all about”.

“He’s come up through the grades like a lot of these boys and seeing them prosper in their careers... he’s never taken a backwards step,” Leniu said.

“If you were to be here during our preseason earlier this year, you’d see he’s just a different person. He’d come in winning most of our fitness drills and he kind of just forced Ivan’s hand to play him.

“He’s had a lot of adversity coming in, he’s finding his feet now and he’s reaping the rewards of all his hard work.”

It is a fresh challenge for both Luke and Kenny, a chance to prove themselves. But the same goes for Koroisau.

WHY TIGERS MOVE COULD BE EXACTLY WHAT KOROISAU NEEDS

On the surface, it is hard to see much for him to get excited about, going from a premiership powerhouse to a perennial struggler suffering from an identity crisis.

Koroisau though sees it differently.

“When you have no expectations on you like the Tigers do next year, it just gives you an opportunity to do what you need to do and go out and prove a few people wrong,” he said.

“I think that’s going to be our biggest asset next year.”

While Eels second rower Isaiah Papali’i is still noncommittal about his impending move, Koroisau is having no second thoughts and could be exactly what the joint-venture needs.

“Api is a key signing for the Tigers,” Alexander said.

“If they can get that part of their game right in and around the ruck and Tim Sheens is a very smart coach, he will extract all of Api’s skills and bring the best out in the Tigers.”

Apisai Koroisau will be a key signing for the Tigers. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

For now though, Koroisau’s focus is on leaving the Panthers with another premiership ring.

The 29-year-old is fairly matter of fact about it, after all it not as if he is unwanted or being forced out, it is simply a case of Penrith paying the price for its success on the field.

“I don’t think it’ll be hard to leave because I sort of have to,” Koroisau said, laughing.

“Honestly, I think this is why it’s worked out in my head. If I could stay I would but unfortunately, there’s obviously cap stuff that needs to go down so I’m completely understanding of that.”

That does not mean it will be easy though.

“This will probably be the hardest one, for sure,” Koroisau added.

“I’ve been to three clubs now and every time I’ve had to leave, I’ve always been quite emotional at the end of it.

“It’s sort of hard too, because you have your party at the end of the year and then it’s just nothing, you know? It’s just no training, it sort of all hits you at once there.”

There will be no sweeter send-off party though than the one that goes into the early hours of Monday morning on October 3. Koroisau and the Panthers are just 160 minutes away from being there again, one last time.