Nathan Cleary's hopes of featuring in this year's State of Origin series are all but over after scans on Monday revealed the NSW halfback has suffered a hamstring tear. The halfback hobbled off the field before halftime in his side's 26-18 win over St George Illawarra in the NRL on Sunday evening, leaving his Origin hopes in serious doubt.
The worst fears for Penrith and NSW were realised on Monday after scans revealed a grade-two tear to his left hamstring that's set to sideline the playmaker for "up to six weeks", according to the Panthers. That diagnosis certainly rules him out of the 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.
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Cleary - who copped flak from critics over an underwhelming display in the Origin series opening defeat to Queensland - pulled up in pain after just 15 minutes at BlueBet Stadium. The playmaker was seen clutching at his left hamstring, before hobbling back into the defensive line, and eventually, out of action for the Panthers on Sunday.
Penrith were hopeful the halfback had suffered a "low-grade" strain, but his coach was under no illusions about the devastating blow that his side and the Blues are staring at. "We're going to be without him for a while," Ivan Cleary said after the game.
"I'm not a doctor but it's a significant injury. I think he'd be very unlikely (for game two)." Cleary is critical to Brad Fittler's plans as the Blues fight to save the series in Brisbane for the first time in Origin history, with Game I utility Nicho Hynes and perhaps Parramatta half Mitchell Moses, the two standout halfback options to replace the Penrith No.7.
Cleary Snr defended the decision to pick his son after a gruelling Origin series opener in Adelaide, claiming he had never shown signs of hamstring issues. "When you back players up, there is always a risk," Ivan said.
"But this is the longest turnaround you can get and he showed no signs. "I'm not sure what the issue there is."
"I think he'd be very unlikely" @PenrithPanthers coach Ivan Cleary says son Nathan's hamstring injury looks set to rule him out of the @NSWBlues side for #OriginII
Get more #NRL news on ch500 & 602 @FOXNRL @FOXSportsAUS https://t.co/lI6iDhiPHG pic.twitter.com/Jmj34JijxG
— FOX SPORTS News (@FOXSportsNews) June 4, 2023
— Zac Bailey (@ZacBailey14) June 4, 2023
There’s not a current NSW halfback that can legitimately claim that they’re of SOO level, it’s normally Cleary & daylight second. Good luck NSW finding a replacement for Cleary.
— Hector Samuels🇦🇺🇮🇹🇺🇸 (@HS19661966) June 4, 2023
Cleary cut a forlorn figure on the sidelines at BlueBet Stadium and Fittler is likely to be experiencing similar feelings as the Blues bid to save the series on June 21 in Brisbane. Penrith and NSW teammate Isaah Yeo said the players were gutted for the star, but tipped him to bounce back quickly.
"It's disappointing for him because he loves playing for Penrith, he's a key factor for us performing well," the Panthers lock said. "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."
Panthers hang on for win after Nathan Cleary setback
Cleary's absence will force a spine shake-up with Jarome Luai's berth as the No. 6 possibly up in the air with his Panthers' teammate unavailable. The Blues must win in Brisbane to have a shot at sealing the series in Game III in Sydney on July 12.
"Nicho (Hynes) is definitely someone who takes a lot of pride in playing footy and he can live up to the jersey and do his job for the team (if selected)," Penrith and Blues winger Brian To'o said.
Penrith's star half looked to have no signs of rust from the Origin opener when he set up winger Brian To'o with a floating cut-out pass in the 11th minute after a Zac Lomax penalty. The teams traded tries and the game was in the balance until a controversial late moment swung the momentum in Penrith's favour.
Touch judge Wyatt Raymond controversially flagged for a knock-on by Dragons winger Mat Feagai which referee Chris Sutton had originally signalled as play on. On the next set, Sunia Turuva touched down for the Panthers. "I saw the referee call 'Gone backwards' three times; he makes the call and then it gets changed," said interim Dragons coach Ryan Carr.
"It's a huge moment and they score off that set, but we couldn't challenge it because it was too late." The Dragons kept going after that setback, depite losing Jack de Belin to a concussion.
Zac Lomax hit back for Carr's men but a rampaging Moses Leota put the Panthers back in control. Stephen Crichton converted Moses Leota's try to re-establish a six-point buffer and added a last-minute penalty to ensure the Panthers' victory.
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