After spending the past five weeks on the sidelines due to suspension, you would have forgiven Panthers superstar Nathan Cleary if he was a little bit rusty on Friday night.
But in a stunning return to the NRL, the 24-year-old produced an elite performance to guide Penrith through to another prelim final, taking down local rivals Parramatta 27-8 at BlueBet Stadium.
Cleary finished with two try assists, a linebreak, a field goal, five conversions and a rent-free spot inside Waqa Blake’s head, as the minor premiers proved far too strong for the Eels.
The NSW Origin halfback delivered some devastating bombs, causing Blake to spill his lollies on numerous occasions, while his temperament and run-selection was as good as ever.
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But speaking to the media after the game, Ivan Cleary admitted it didn’t come as a surprise to see his son perform so well despite the extended break.
“He has always done it in the past,” he said.
“If he has ever been injured or hasn’t played for a while, he comes back well first-back from a spell.
“I was hoping that was going to happen – the way he was training and the way he looked, I thought he would go alright. He played really well tonight, I’m very proud of him.
“I felt like he came up with the right kick at the right time, most of the time.
“Every time he put one of those floaters up, he got a result.”
Brad Arthur claimed the Penrith star ‘kicked his side to death’ during the qualifying final clash, with the Eels now facing a sudden-death scenario next weekend against the winner of Melbourne and Canberra.
As for the Panthers, they have booked their spot in a grand final qualifier for the third-straight year, earning themselves a weekend off in the process.
“We’re in a prelim and that’s awesome,” coach Cleary said.
“It’s so hard to get there and it’s been a long hard year…I’m really happy with it.
“I really enjoyed the first-half, but I thought a few yardage errors and a couple of offside penalties kind of let them off. Second-half, Nat spilled a try that he should score and then they got their two points.
“After that, I thought we really controlled the game and attacked well and defended well.
“There were lots of things to like tonight.”
Penrith skipper Isaah Yeo was also full of praise for his star No.7, expressing the influence he brings to the rest of the group.
“He’s your star player, he’s your halfback – when he is out there, you can feel the confidence grow,” he said.
“I thought his kicking game was outstanding, he knew when to run.
“You could see it happening at training, but to see him come out on the big stage – he was the best player on the park by a mile tonight.
“I thought he was outstanding.”