Cleary unlikely to return for Panthers
The Panthers will have to win the Holden Cup without star halfback Nathan Cleary with the Australian Schoolboys captain confirming that he does not expect to be brought back in by coach Cameron Ciraldo.
The Panthers progressed to their second under-20s grand final in three years with a clinical display against the Warriors in Brisbane on Friday night with Jarome Luai deputising for Cleary who was in camp on the Gold Coast with the Australian team.
Cleary was one of the stars of Australia's thumping 70-24 win over the New Zealand under-18s at Suncorp Stadium on Sunday and will stay with the team to play the second Test at Wynnum on Thursday night.
Even if he was to come through unscathed Cleary said he doesn't expect to be part of the 17 to take on the Sea Eagles in the Holden Cup decider.
"I'll speak to the coach and see what happens but I'm not expecting to play," Cleary told NRL.com.
"I'll go back to Penrith on Friday and see all the boys before the captain's run and hopefully they get the job done on Sunday.
"It was definitely a hard choice but representing Australia is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You could never get it again so I went down that path."
Cleary's inclusion would be a significant one but Penrith coach Cameron Ciraldo has faith his squad can get the job done without their regular halfback.
"We'd known about that for quite some time and we always knew the blokes that step into the position would do the job. They've done it all year," Ciraldo told NRL.com.
"We hadn't really spoken about [Cleary's absence] much to be honest, it wasn't even something that we spoke about as a group.
"All we were doing was preparing for this game with the players we knew we had available. They did the job to get us to the grand final so I suppose it's something that we're going to have to talk about in the review of this game."
While Cleary's absence on Friday night may have been expected the inclusion of Robert Jennings came as something of a surprise to even the coach.
Jennings suffered a grade three hamstring tear playing first grade against the Rabbitohs in Round 21 and was initially ruled out for the season, Ciraldo was pleasantly surprised by his willingness to get back on the field.
"He was injured against Souths in Round 21 in first grade and it wasn't really something that we'd spoken about until that first semi-final when he started training with us," Ciraldo said.
"He was doing rehab with the boys and was looking quite good so a bit of a surprise for us.
"I asked him if he really wanted to play and he was quite adamant that he wanted to play with the boys here and he wanted to finish the year off playing and not being in rehab."
The Panthers will play the Sea Eagles in the first game of Grand Final Day on Sunday as they seek to win their second National Youth Competition title in three years.