Cleary claims bragging rights as Panthers dominate

Matt Encarnacion
Cleary claims bragging rights as Panthers dominate

Penrith star Nathan Cleary has made a triumphant NRL return from injury after helping steer the Panthers to a 16-2 win over the Wests Tigers on Thursday.

Cleary had missed the past seven matches with a knee issue but set up a first-half try and broke three tackles in a strong performance against his dad's Tigers side.

He has now won both contests against father Ivan in the NRL but, more importantly, took a step towards a possible NSW debut two weeks before teams for State of Origin game one are selected.

The halfback combined well with veteran playmaker James Maloney in a dominant first half at Panthers Stadium, where the hosts enjoyed triple the amount of plays inside the opposition 20-metre zone.

And while Penrith were unable to covert their dominance into points, they were largely untroubled in defence as the Tigers were held try-less for the first time in a year.

The win in front of a crowd of 15,081 lifts the Panthers to 16 points but below top-placed St George Illawarra on points differential.

Cleary was strong against the Tigers. Pic: Getty

For the Tigers, their disappointing result is their fourth defeat in five games and the early-season surprise packets are now in danger of slipping out of the top eight for the first time in 2018.

Both teams traded early penalties when Panthers forward Trent Merrin was marched for repeated team infringements in the 22nd minute, however, his exit only sparked Penrith into an attacking frenzy.

Cleary set up Tyrone Peachey with a well-timed grubber not long after, before Maloney followed it up with a two-man cutout for an acrobatic finish by Tyrone Phillips and a two-try lead at halftime.

The Panthers had numerous opportunities to extend their advantage in a controlled second half, which included Tigers forward Alex Twal being sin-binned for repeated team penalties.

Viliame Kikau, Christian Crichton and Phillips all appeared set to score but were denied by a valiant Tigers defence on each occasion, before the Panthers held on for their sixth win in eight matches.