Nathan Cleary's nerves of steel, Cowboys concerns: Good, bad and ugly of NRL round 7

Nathan Cleary came up clutch for the Panthers once again, while the Cowboys continue to flounder and Jack Wighton baffles the Raiders.

Nathan Cleary carries the ball on the left, and celebrates among his Panthers teammates on the right.
Nathan Cleary hauled the Panthers to victory over the Newcastle Knights in golden point, sending fans into overdrive. Pictures: Getty Images

😃 The good: Nathan Cleary

😔 The bad: North Queensland's vanishing act

😡 The ugly: Jack Wighton

Nathan Cleary did it all for the Penrith Panthers, while Jack Wighton had a shocker after a big few weeks for the Raiders star. That and what's happening to the Cowboys in our recap of the biggest NRL talking points this round.

Nathan Cleary delivers another powerhouse Panthers performance

Surely there are no Nathan Cleary doubters left? The Penrith "Iceman" did what he has been doing for years – winning games for his team – when he stepped up to drag the Panthers to a fortuitous victory over luckless Newcastle.

If Cleary's not there, the premiers don’t win. He produced a ridiculous 40-20 at a critical stage, slotted a regular time field goal to level things up and then produced his piece de resistance – a golden point field goal.

Whatever Penrith pays him, it's not enough. He's the best player in the game. Full stop, new paragraph.

Yet there are some that still need convincing. Take a look at some of the tweets about him on any given day.

I know they're from an anonymous accounts tapped out by some keyboard warrior, but this is the sort of garbage Cleary has put up with throughout his career. That's despite winning premierships, State of Origin series, World Cups and icing too many NRL games to count. And apart from his footballing ability, he's a decent young bloke into the bargain.

What's not to like?

What has happened to the North Queensland Cowboys?

North Queensland finished last season one game away from a grand final appearance. They played brilliant attacking footy mixed with brutal defence, memorably snatching a golden point first-week finals win against Cronulla at Shark Park.

Todd Payten was deservedly awarded Dally M coach-of-the-year and quickly granted a contract extension. Hopes were high in Townsville that 2023 would bring more success and there was little reason to think otherwise.

But seven weeks into this campaign, you can almost put a line through their chances. The Cowboys are batting 2-5 following another disappointing loss – a 22-14 defeat to the suddenly hot Warriors.

The North Queensland Cowboys.
The North Queensland Cowboys have been a shadow of themselves after their impressive season in 2022. (Photo by Andy Jackson/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Only the winless Wests Tigers sit between North Queensland and the competition basement. They are miles away from the team that lit up last year's competition.

"Winning games is hard to do in the NRL," Payten said. "People have a preconceived idea on how things are going to go, but that’s not always the way it happens.

"We’re putting ourselves under far too much pressure, whether it’s lack of ball control, discipline out of our own end and then defending our try line."

Life doesn’t get much easier for Payten's men over the next few weeks, as they’re at home to the Knights next round before taking on heavyweights Cronulla and the Roosters. Unless there is a dramatic turnaround, their season could be done and dusted by early May.

Jack Wighton's year from hell

Just what is going inside that head of Jack Wighton's at the moment? The Raiders star appears to have a lot on his mind and is producing some D-grade football as a result.

Wighton was well off-key in Canberra's win over St George IIlawarra on Sunday, handing the Dragons a late lifeline with an ill-advised pass that led to an intercept try. It was only the Red V's inability to make their final set count that saved Wighton's skin.

Jack Wighton.
Jack Wighton had a shocker in round seven, despite the Raiders hanging on to beat the Dragons. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

It wasn't his only blemish on a day where the 30-year-old playmaker produced more rocks than diamonds, as it's been an interesting couple of months for Wighton. First there was the off-field dust-up with Latrell Mitchell that led to a court appearance.

Then came news he would be testing his value on the open market after 12 years in the capital. And his stinker of an afternoon against the Dragons came just hours after reports emerged Wighton would be making himself unavailable for State of Origin selection.

On current form, Origin is the least of his concerns.

Sign up to our newsletter and score the biggest sport stories of the week.