Panthers halves gel in good time

Scott Bailey and Matt Encarnacion
Penrith's Nathan Cleary will find out on Monday if he's earned a NSW debut for State of Origin I

They're the coffee dates that Nathan Cleary and James Maloney hope have helped strengthen their combination enough to land them NSW jerseys alongside each other.

The Penrith pair remain the front-runners to be named in the halves when Brad Fittler reveals his NSW team on Monday night, as they vie for the two spots with Sydney Roosters five-eighth Luke Keary.

Saturday night's 28-2 win over St George Illawarra in the top-of-the-table clash played at breakneck speed was the perfect Origin audition for Maloney and Cleary.

In the four games they've spent 80 minutes alongside each other, the Panthers have won all four.

But the problem is that despite being a club combination they've still only played four-and-a-half games together after Cleary was sidelined by a knee injury in round three.

And while their combination has looked silky smooth since Cleary's return, the pair have made a point to strengthen their relationship to make up for lost time.

"We had a few coffee dates and that when we can," Cleary said.

"It's just about spending time together and getting to know our games.

"The best way to build it is to play more games together and that's only a matter of time until we get more games under our belt and we keep improving.

"I think we're on the right track."

At first glance, Maloney and Cleary's combination appears to have passed their toughest test.

With Maloney having taken on a dominant role during Cleary's seven-game absence, the pair have taken no time to gel back into their normal roles - an issue far more experienced pairings than them have struggled with this season.

"I can't credit Jimmy enough," Cleary said.

"He is really easy to play alongside. He's a world-class halfback but he's not too dominant.

"I think that really helps with us getting along and playing our game. Our combination is building. I'm just really lucky to play alongside him at the moment."