If previous seasons are anything to go by, Nathan Cleary's mid-season injury lay-off is almost a guarantee the Panthers will contest the NRL grand final again in 2023. More ominously for his premiership rivals, the superstar halfback says time in the coaches' box alongside father Ivan has helped him become an even better player.
The Panthers are hoping to do what no other first grade rugby league side has done since Parramatta 40 years ago, by claiming a third consecutive premiership in 2023. Panthers co-captain Cleary once again looms as key to his side's hopes of completing a rare three-peat, and suggests time on the sidelines has actually been very beneficial for him.
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This is the third year in a row where the Penrith No.7 has been ruled out for lengthy chunks of the season, with the Panthers winning the grand final on the other two occasions. In 2021, it was a shoulder injury suffered during State of Origin Game II that threatened to end his season.
The classy halfback opted against surgery and returned to inspire his side to a drought-breaking premiership triumph over South Sydney. The following year it was a five-match ban for a lifting tackle on Parramatta's Dylan Brown in round 20 that rubbed Cleary out for the back-end of the regular season. Again he returned to help the Panthers beat Parramatta in last year's grand final to become back-to-back premiers.
This year, it was another injury during the Origin period - this time to his hamstring - that ruled Cleary out of Games II and III for NSW as the Blues lost the series 2-1 to Queensland. Ruled out for six weeks, Cleary has since put that disappointment behind him to help the Panthers claim another minor premiership and march towards what most experts believe will be another NRL grand final.
Penrith eyeing first premiership three-peat in 40 years
The Panthers are only one win away from a fourth consecutive grand-final appearance, having won seven of eight matches since Cleary's return. The halfback says sitting inside the coaches' box alongside his father Ivan during that injury lay-off has actually helped hone his tactical nous.
"That's been the coolest thing about the last three years is gaining that different perspective from the coach's point of view," he said. "Seeing the game from up high, it's a lot different. You see what things are working and what things you can try out.
"That's the important part that if you do have time off or you are injured, you're using it the right way and trying to get better. I've had that mindset for the last three years."
For Cleary, the challenge is taking those lessons back onto the field as Penrith look to become the first team of the NRL era to win three consecutive titles. "It's obviously much harder when you're fatigued and you don't have that birds eye view of what's going on," he added.
The superstar half conceded that while time off during the season - and being ruled out of Origin - is not ideal, the positive is that it has left him feeling more refreshed for the business end of the season than he would likely have been under such a heavy workload. "As much as you don't want to be missing games, sometimes it's good to kind of break up the year," he said.
"It ends up being a massive year if you play every game and every Origin game. It's worked well for me but I don't think dad (coach Ivan Cleary) is too happy about me missing all that time each year."
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