Nathan Cleary was back to his brilliant best as the Panthers dismantled the Bulldogs on Sunday, showing absolutely no rust despite missing six weeks with a hamstring injury. In a scary warning to their NRL premiership rivals, the Panthers scored eight tries as they fielded their strongest line-up in weeks.
Playing in his first game since round 14, Cleary had two try assists, two line-break assists, one tackle break and six goals from eight attempts as the Panthers clicked into gear. As close to full-strength as they have been all season (minus centre Izack Tago), the twice defending champions inflicted the bulk of the damage in the opening exchanges, running in 28 unanswered points to put the game beyond doubt after just 30 minutes.
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"It was just good to have the whole gang back together," coach Ivan Cleary said afterwards. "I'm looking forward to the next few weeks. We should hopefully get a bit better but we did a lot right today."
Cleary took a while to find his attacking flare but laid on two beautiful passes for tries to Stephen Crichton and Luke Garner in the second half. The second of which proved the best, with Cleary digging into the Bulldogs line before putting Garner through a huge hole.
“He looks absolutely sensational the Penrith halfback, but are any of us surprised?” Michael Ennis said in commentary for Fox League. “He’s so professional, he has orchestrated their shape superbly.
"He has been a threat on an edge, set up several tries and line breaks. Kicking has been absolutely superb, a great performance on return from a hamstring injury.”
The halfback ran the line that led to the first of Brian To'o's two tries in the first half, then swung left to give the Panthers the overlap that saw Tyrone Peachey secure a double. "There was a bit of rust in some of the stuff he did today. But he played well," Ivan Cleary said of his son.
NRL fans were also left singing Cleary's praises, with many questioning how anyone will stop the Panthers going back-to-back-to-back now they have their first-choice halves back together. The win saw the Panthers remain first on the ladder, equal with the Broncos on 32 points.
Nathan Cleary is just different gravy
— Kyle (@kyle_waller2) July 23, 2023
You wouldn’t think that Nathan Cleary had been off for 6 weeks. What a performance from him today #NRLPanthersBulldogs
— Mancave Sports Australia (@mancavesportsoz) July 23, 2023
— Ramonz_C (@ramonz_c) July 23, 2023
Can anyone stop Penrith winning third-straight premiership?
The only sour note for the Panthers was a suspected medial cruciate ligament injury to bench forward Spencer Leniu. Tago was also a late withdrawal with an unspecified leg issue, however Cleary didn't think it was serious.
"I don't think it's too bad but it was bad enough for him not to come out in the second half," the coach said of Leniu's injury. We'll know more about that tomorrow."
The Bulldogs showed some fight late in the game after a horror first half, scoring only four fewer points than the Panthers in the second. But they shot themselves in the foot when the game was in the balance - with all of Penrith's first four tries coming directly after a penalty or an error from the Bulldogs.
"I'm probably as proud of them this week as I have been for a long time," coach Cameron Ciraldo said. "The way the game started, the adversity we had there, I'm really proud of how they hung in there and I thought we finished really strong."
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