Nathan Cleary fought off a skin infection on his face and a six-hour stay in hospital to help Penrith to a gutsy 20-12 win over South Sydney.
On antibiotics all week and needing an intravenous drip on Wednesday, Cleary recovered in time to play with a swollen face and bandage on his upper nose.
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The Panthers halfback scored a late try and had a small hand in two others, controlling the game perfectly as he also forced two line drop outs.
It prompted Andrew Johns to label it the best match he had seen the No.7 play - not bad considering Cleary had barely trained all week amid headaches and puffy eyes affecting his vision.
Commentators were speculating about an infection he was thought to have, which made Cleary's normally radar-like goal-kicking uncharacteristically shaky.
The Panthers sharpshooter had only missed one kick at goal going into the contest but only made one out of four on Thursday night.
Close-ups from the television coverage showed a worrying degree of swelling around Cleary's forehead that made viewers more than a little squeamish.
Just home from work....Nathan Cleary’s face!!! 😱 #NRLPanthersSouths
— The Peanut Gallery (@_shanmoho) June 25, 2020
Fai dinkum what about young Nathan Cleary’s melon 😬
Looks like he’s about to morph into a creature from “Tales from the Crypt” #NRLPanthersSouths
— Kurt Webb (@TheKurtoWEBBY) June 25, 2020
Nathan Cleary spent around six hours being treated in hospital for cellulitis. Unbelievable. Poor ol’ melon looks bloody frightening. TV classification needed to be bumped up to MA rating ...
— christian nicolussi (@mrchrisnico) June 25, 2020
Nathan Cleary has a bandaid or something between his eyebrows and from a distance on camera it distorts his face in a way that makes him look like he has one of those warped filters on 😅😫 poor dude #NRLPanthersSouths
— James (@littlegemjames) June 25, 2020
— Veronica Eggleton (@veggleton) June 25, 2020
— Raiders Review With Blake & The Pork (@blakeandthepork) June 25, 2020
— NRL on Nine (@NRLonNine) June 25, 2020
It wasn't until after the game that the extent of Cleary's condition became clearer to viewers.
"Monday he turned up and his face was pretty swollen. That's when we worked out he had an infection," coach and dad Ivan Cleary said.
"Come yesterday (Wednesday) we worked out antibiotics weren't really working and he was worse.
"So he was in hospital most of yesterday, on an IV drip and all that sort of stuff.
"We had to wait until this morning, then halfway through today [we thought] he was OK."
Halfback brushes off concerns to star in win
Coach Cleary instructed his son on Thursday that the safest option could be to sit back and steer the team around from the line.
Nathan was far too tough for that, running the ball nine times.
He was whacked high by Cameron Murray after his first kick but recovered to put the ball on a dime for Viliame Kikau moments later.
Just as he did last week against Melbourne, Kikau got to the halfback's bomb first and this time batted it back for Jarome Luai who found Brent Naden to score.
In the second half Cleary threw the last ball for a Dylan Edwards try, where the fullback did the majority of the work as he stepped and swatted away two defenders.
And after booting a penalty goal himself following three earlier misses, Cleary then got the Panthers' last try when he fought off four defenders to dummy his way across the line.
"He definitely wanted to play, you could see that," Ivan said.
Also missing winger Josh Mansour with a minor knee issue, the Panthers have now won three of five since the competition's restart and are among the genuine premiership threats.
They are temporarily first on the ladder and will stay there if Parramatta and Newcastle lose this weekend.
Luai also impressed at No.6, laying on Penrith's other try when he grubbered for a chasing Stephen Crichton to make it 8-0 at the break.
Souths, meanwhile, looked out of the contest for much of the game.
They only got their first points after the break when Adam Reynolds went to the line and fired an inside ball for the flying Bayley Sironen to score his first NRL try.
They also spent part of the game with just 11 men, with James Roberts and Latrell Mitchell both sin-binned for professional fouls late on.
with Yahoo Sport staff