A disastrous hamstring injury to Nathan Cleary may have stolen the headlines in Penrith's win over St George Illawarra, but a questionable knock-on call against the Dragons left plenty of NRL fans seething. On Monday, scans confirmed the worst for Cleary, with the Panthers and NSW Origin star suffering a hamstring tear that's set to keep him out for up to six weeks.
That diagnosis certainly rules him out of the Blues' must-win Game II in Brisbane on June 21 and leaves him at long odds to feature in Game III in Sydney on July 12. Cleary had earlier set his side up for an early try before hobbling off the field in the first half of Sunday evening's game.
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While the Panthers did admirably to secure the victory without their talismanic halfback, many disgruntled fans pointed to a highly controversial second half call against the Dragons, as a turning point in a closely fought battle. Penrith fill-in half Jack Cogger put in a kick that Dragons winger Mat Feagai should have easily dealt with.
However, Feagai juggled the ball before almost certainly knocking it backwards, with referee Chris Sutton initially signalling play on as Dragons fullback Tyrell Sloan picked up the footy. Sloan appeared to give his side up by almost jogging on the spot with the footy, before taking off downfield when he heard the play on call.
It was perhaps that moment of hesitation that proved the undoing of the Dragons as the touch judge intervened and the referee waved Sloan back after he'd started running upfield into open pastures. The questionable call proved costly, with Sunia Turuva scoring a try for the Panthers off the very next set.
To make matters worse, the Dragons didn't end up getting a challenge on the call, despite replays quite clearly showing that the ball had traveled backwards. A clearly baffled Dragons interim coach Ryan Carr summed up the thoughts of viewers after the game.
Dragons knock-on drama stuns viewers
"I saw the referee call 'Gone backwards' three times; he makes the call and then it gets changed," Carr said. "It's a huge moment and they score off that set, but we couldn't challenge it because it was too late.
“I need to get some clarification on why all of a sudden, the person on the field with the best view of the play, changes his call.
“I dunno if it was a 50:50 (call), I think it was a hundred to nothing because it got called back.”
Penrith getting gifted by the ref. No knock on for the Dragons. What a joke
— Brig (@Brig1965) June 4, 2023
Dragons ripped off, was knock back and ref calls it, they were about to score and then says knock on 🙄🙄
Penriff always getting refs help
— Paul's good in love and war (@MrSonicPauly) June 4, 2023
Dragons absolutely robbed. How is that a knock on? 12 point turn around.
Touchy won’t have a job next week #NRLPanthersDragons
— Dean Watling (@deanwatling) June 4, 2023
Bad call, but Dragons are just dumb not to challenge that knock on. #nrlPanthersdragons
— Scott James Perry (@scottjamesperry) June 4, 2023
Absolutely diabolical by the Dragons there & then not challenging that knock on call 😂 Feagai is low key terrible but what was Sloan doing there
— The Fall Guy (@gcampbell_88) June 4, 2023
@NRL_Dragons will you complain to the NRL ? The whole competition is turning into a joke and a farce
— Titanium McAllister (@irondave42) June 4, 2023
Nathan Cleary injury rocks Penrith and NSW
The Dragons controversy was undoubtedly overshadowed by the hamstring injury to Cleary that represents a devastating blow to Penrith and the NSW Origin side. Cleary cut a dejected figure on the sidelines at BlueBet Stadium, with Blues coach Brad Fittler likely to be experiencing similar feelings as the Blues bid to save the series in Brisbane.
"It's disappointing for him because he loves playing for Penrith, he's a key factor for us performing well," Panthers lock Isaah Yeo said after the Dragons' clash. "It's the same as Origin, it's disappointing because he's worked so hard on his game.
"That's footy sometimes, you have those unlucky moments. But what I do know is that he'll attack his rehab better than anyone."
Cronulla's Nicho Hynes, Parramatta No.7 Mitchell Moses and veteran Brisbane halfback Adam Reynolds are all possible candidates to replace the Penrith man, with a groundswell of support building for the latter on Monday. Broncos star Reynolds knows Suncorp Stadium well and has been in vintage form in 2023, with his club bosses giving their blessing if the 32-year-old is picked for the Blues.
Reynolds' former halves partner Cody Walker is another name who has been mentioned, with Fittler facing more than one headache over the make-up of his side for Game II. Hynes and Moses also have Origin experience, with each man potentially offering something a little different for Fittler and the Blues.
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