Penrith Panthers hooker Apisai Koroisau targets grand final jersey of Melbourne Storm hooker Cameron Smith

The opportunity to be the last player ever to mark up on Smith isn’t lost on Koroisau.

“I guess that would be pretty special, he’s done so much in the game it would be hard for anyone to catch him and the legacy he’s left behind,” Koroisau said. “It would be something to keep in the memory bank.”

Smith’s jersey would be a keeper, too. If it is his final game, the jumper will become a valuable piece of memorabilia. The decider will mark his 430th NRL appearance, a record that will likely stand the test of time. The veteran rake has yet to publicly declare whether he will retire at fulltime, guaranteeing another week of speculation.

Koroisau is likely to be the last player to mark up on Cam Smith.Credit:Getty

“I don’t know. I thought it would be his last five years ago,” Koroisau said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he goes for another five years.”

Koroisau isn’t one to study hours of video, but can’t remember a time when Smith wasn’t dominating the game. The former Sea Eagles and Panthers hooker enjoys testing himself against the best and is looking forward to the challenge that Smith presents.

“100 per cent,” he said. “Coming in to play against the greatest No.9 to play the game, it’s obviously a great challenge. “He’s obviously been an idol of mine growing up. I love playing footy against the greats.

“Damien Cook has been one of the best hookers over the last couple of years, that was another great challenge.”

Asked if he attempts to take copy some of Smith’s traits, Koroisau said: “It’s pretty hard to take something from Cameron Smith.

“He’s not a running hooker, he’s more like an IQ player. It’s hard to take things from his game because he’s so natural. I don’t know if he studies the game crazy or whatnot. It’s hard to emulate what he does because he’s so special.


“I try to do the best that I can and pick what I can from everyone. It’s pretty special watching Cameron Smith.”

Koroisau was forced from the field in the win against South Sydney due to a shoulder injury, but returned to finish the game. The 27 year old said he was in no doubt for the grand final.

“The first couple of minutes I was [nervous] but when I got back in the tunnel and realised it was a stinger, I could have stayed on the field,” he said.

Like Smith, Koroisau is a premiership-winning No.9. The Fijian international was called into the Rabbitohs side to replace the suspended Issac Luke for the club’s drought-breaking triumph six years ago. This time around he is a linchpin of the Panthers spine and one of the reasons the club is on a 17-game winning streak.

“I’m in a position here where I’ve been part of the team for the whole year,” he said. “It will be a bit more special for me. I still love 2014 but definitely I hope I can be part of one here at Penrith.”

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Why Penrith Panthers hooker Api Koroisau discards his South Sydney Rabbitohs triumph from the 2014 grand final

“I was just taking a spot for a day. I was still proud of the day and being a part of it. Just emotionally, that just didn’t feel like it was my team. I don’t count that as a premiership that I was part of. I’d never take that away from Issac or claim that one.”

In the six years following South Sydney’s drought-breaking victory against the Canterbury Bulldogs, Koroisau has been to Penrith, Manly and back to Penrith – transforming from a bits-and-pieces player to one of the best No.9s in the NRL.

Adam Reynolds and Api Koroisau celebrate South Sydney’s 2014 grand final win against the Bulldogs.Credit:Getty

His return to Penrith this season has ignited the club’s once stuttering attack and allowed the halves the freedom to turn the Panthers into premiership contenders in the space of 12 months.

They are now 80 minutes away from the club’s first grand final in 17 years, and if they notch a 17th consecutive win of the season against Souths to reach the decider, Koroisau’s contribution will be undeniable.

“If we got the chance here at Penrith to win a grand final, having the involvement that I’ve had at the club this season, it would be incredible,” Koroisau said.

“When I was at Souths, they had Greg Inglis, Sam Burgess, Ben Te’o, John Sutton … they had proper legends in that team. I always said to myself I was just the little Fijian kid from Bankstown getting around with the big boys. Now it’s a bit different.

Api Koroisau with Panthers teammate Tyrone May after the win against the Sydney Roosters in week one of the finals.

Api Koroisau with Panthers teammate Tyrone May after the win against the Sydney Roosters in week one of the finals.Credit:Getty

“The mindset has changed. At some point in your career you have to realise your worth to a football team otherwise you’ll never get anywhere. I’m fortunate enough to be part of this team and I want to make sure I play my part to help us win a premiership.”

The only reason Koroisau played in the 2014 grand final was because Luke was rubbed out after being charged with a dangerous throw tackle against the Sydney Roosters’ Sonny Bill Williams in the preliminary final.


Koroisau struggled all week with the guilt of replacing his idol in such an important game, but insists the support of Luke was instrumental in the lead-up to the match at ANZ Stadium.

“I felt so sorry for him,” Koroisau said. “That was my mentor growing up. When I got to the club, he included me in everything and really took me under his wing. He had a massive impact on my footy and life. For him to miss out on that I was gutted.

“I only played 12 games that year. I didn’t feel like I put in as much as everyone else. I just kept apologising to him because I shouldn’t have been playing. The first time I said it he said to me ‘shut the f— up, I don’t want to hear it’. He just wanted to get to work to help me. But, man, the guilt was crazy.”

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South Sydney Rabbitohs hooker Damien Cook admits to studying Penrith Panthers rival Api Koroisau before showdown in grand final qualifer

“He’s got great deception around the ruck and he’s a big reason Penrith are where they are this year. They’re a big forward pack and he knows how to use them well. He’s definitely one of their best players and standouts this year.

“Api is a big reason they’re playing well, if he’s not the main reason they’re at the top of the table.”

He’s got great deception around the ruck and he’s a big reason Penrith are where they are this year

Damien Cook

Apart from being the two standout No.9s this season alongside Cameron Smith, Cook and Koroisau share a little more in common.

They’ve never played together – Koroisau left South Sydney after their 2014 drought-breaking title, Cook headed to Redfern in 2016 – but both have been late bloomers in their careers and played for three different clubs.

State of Origin coach Brad Fittler will have the option of drafting Koroisau into his 27-man squad for this year’s series as a back-up to Cook, but has already named St George Illawarra’s Cameron McInnes, who can also fill the small lock role.

Cook was full of praise for his NSW teammate and Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary, who he described as “the complete player”, which is the description many were throwing around about him after he torched the Eels.

Damien Cook will take on Api Koroisau in the preliminary final.Credit:Getty Images

Asked about his adaptation to the new rules implemented during the COVID break, Cook said: “What I’ve learned is every game is different and every team is defending different.

“I think it’s about learning when to take it yourself and giving it to the outside backs and letting them do their job. It’s something we’ve done well this year. The biggest part I make sure I do well is knowing when to take my opportunities, but more importantly knowing when to give it to them.

“[And] I can’t praise the forward pack enough at the moment.”


One of those players is mid-season recruit Jed Cartwright, who was told he had no future at the Panthers and sealed a mid-season switch earlier this year.

His surname has been synonymous with Penrith, but he managed just one NRL game with the club when he made his debut last year and was even searching on the internet for full-time employment only months ago.

“When COVID came and we went into meltdown I was on Seek looking for jobs,” Cartwright said.

“They were construction jobs. I didn’t know if there was going to be any more football and I didn’t think I would get a game with no NSW Cup. It was pretty scary, but I’m glad it didn’t come to that. I definitely didn’t think I would be in this position.

“I was at Penrith for four years and it just felt like I was progressing nowhere. They told me there was no future for me at the club. It was a bit of a bitter pill to swallow. Me and my family will always have a soft spot for Penrith and always hope they go well.


“I’ve got nothing to prove to them and if anything I want to prove to myself I deserve to be here.”

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Ryan Matterson pure class act in distressing Api Koroisau head injury

Rugby league, you magnificent little beauty.

The NRL’s battle of the west was not the scene you’d expect to find one of the most tender acts of the season — but that’s what eels star Ryan Matterson provided on Friday night.

Among the flying spittle and bone-jarring collisions of the Panthers’ demolition job on western Sydney — and top four — rivals Parramatta, Matterson showed why fans keep coming back night after night to the greatest game of all.

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The former Tigers star provided a contender for best moment of the season when he showed pure class in caring for Panthers star Api Koroisau when the Penrith rake suffered a head injury in the second half.

Koroisau appeared to take a hip bone to the head as he dashed in to tackle Eels winger Blake Ferguson — a tackle that saw the Eels handed a penalty for holding on too long.

But, as Eels playmaker Mitchell Moses kicked to touch and the game progressed, Koroisau stayed hunched over on the turf, unable to get to his feet on wobbly legs.

Matterson, who was standing nearby, appeared to be the only person to see Koroisau was in a bad way.

As the former Manly No. 9 tried to get back to his feet and stumbled, Matterson acted quickly to wrap him up in a bear hug to keep him stable.

When Koroisau still tried to re-join the Panthers’ defensive line, Matterson wrapped him up again and waved to the Penrith bench for immediate medical attention.

A trainer was quickly on the spot. He took just a few seconds of looking at Koroisau to know the star rake needed to come from the field immediately.

Koroisau was taken for a HIA test in the 60th minute and did not return.

“Api Koroisau is in huge trouble here,” Fox League commentator Michael Ennis said.

Commentator Andrew Voss was blown away by the classy gesture.

“Matterson knows all about concussions and he’s helping Api there, the keep him on his feet,” he said.

“And this is something we highlighted before, this is a huge game. Everything at stake, and there’s the sportsmanship in the great game of rugby league right there.

“That’s some moment, Matterson coming to the aid of Api Koroisau.”

The NRL Physio was also impressed.

“Fantastic from Ryan Matterson, showing care for an opposition player (Koroisau) who was clearly affected by a blow to the head,” he posted on Twitter.

“Such a positive gesture for player safety from a guy who has a complex history with concussion himself. Hope Koroisau is OK.”

It was enough for even disgruntled Tigers fans — still filthy at the circumstances of Matterson walking out on the club to join Parramatta — to find some affection for the star forward. Almost.

RELATED: Eels in deep trouble after nightmare loss

It comes just two weeks after the Wests Tigers also showed the Panthers some love with another display of sportsmanship when Penrith forward Isaah Yeo also looked on the verge of collapsing following a head knock.

Eight minutes into the second half of the Panthers’ 30-6 win, Penrith back-rower Yeo reeled out of a tackle when his head made nasty contact with the shoulder of Tigers forward Matt Eisenhuth.

Yeo hit the ground immediately and referee Ben Cummins, noticing he was in a bad way, stopped play after the tackle was completed by a couple of his teammates.

Yeo tried to stand up but stumbled backwards, looking like he might hit the deck again. Fortunately, players from both sides rushed in to help the big man.

Eisenhuth and Tigers centre Moses Mbye were two of the quickest to react, running towards Yeo to grab him and hold him up. Tigers bench forward Elijah Taylor was another who helped out, as well as Penrith second-rower Liam Martin.

Even Cummins made a move to support the wounded Panther as the whistleblower looked ready to go above and beyond the call of duty.

Rugby league — the greatest game of all.

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NRL 2020: Late Mail, early mail, team news; Jordan Kahu COVID-19, Panthers v Broncos, Api Koroisau, SuperCoach news

Penrith could be handed a big boost ahead of their clash with the Broncos.

While the Storm and Roosters could have two representative forwards back in their respective sides following injuries.

Read on for your Round 17 Late Mail.

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Round 17

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