Cleary closing in on Panthers return

Steve Zemek
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Cleary

Cleary's return will be a big boost to the injury-ravaged Panthers. Pic: Getty

Injury-ravaged Penrith are about to receive reinforcements with coach Anthony Griffin confirming Nathan Cleary is as close as a fortnight away from returning.

The Panthers' star halfback could be back from a knee injury in time to face his father, Wests Tigers coach Ivan, when his side takes on the joint venture in round 11.

Importantly for NSW, it would give him two games to prove his fitness before Brad Fittler selects his side for the June 6 State of Origin series opener.

It would also be manna from heaven for the Panthers who, heading into Saturday's clash with the out-of-sorts North Queensland in Bathurst, have eight players on their injured list.

Cleary has begun running and Griffin said while a return date hadn't been set in stone, he was on track to possibly return in a fortnight.

"He's probably another two or three weeks, he's advancing really well," Griffin said.

"He's very meticulous with everything he does so it's no surprise that with his rehab he's getting everything he can out of himself.

"He's really strong. We'll get a picture next week about an absolute return date but he's progressing really well."

Cleary's return will be a big boost to the injury-ravaged Panthers. Pic: Getty

Despite being in the grips of an injury crisis, the luckless Panthers are second and have won six of their first eight - their equal best ever start to a season.

This week Tim Browne was forced to retire because of a bowel injury while Sam McKendry (ACL) and Dylan Edwards (shoulder) are also gone for the year.

The Panthers' great strength under Griffin has been their ability to roll with the punches and adapt to big team changes.

Dallin Watene-Zelezniak will shift to fullback against the Cowboys while the return of hooker Peter Wallace gives them much-needed experience in the middle.

"We've been fortunate, we've been able to patch things up from week to week," Griffin said.

"It's a credit to our players, every time we give someone a debut, and we've had four debutants in eight rounds, or every time we need someone to come in take up a position, they've always done their job.

"It's something that's really pleasing for us."

The Cowboys are in danger of slipping to last spot with a loss to the Panthers and are considering switching Michael Morgan to fullback and starting Te Maire Martin at five-eighth.

STATS THAT MATTER

* Penrith have won their last three games at Carrington Park, Bathurst.

* The Panthers will be aiming to win their opening five home games for the first time since 1999.

* North Queensland will be aiming to avoid losing four straight opening away games for the first time since 2014.

Source: Fox Sports Stats