Classy Cleary steers Panthers to victory
Legendary halfback Peter Sterling has paid young Panthers half Nathan Cleary the greatest compliment in the game by declaring the kick that sealed Penrith's 31-12 win over Brisbane was one that Johnathan Thurston would be proud of.
The 18-year-old's kicking game dictated terms in the opening quarter of the game and then as the Broncos threatened to fight back late in the second half he forced a line drop-out from near halfway with a perfectly weighted kick that pulled up a metre short of the dead-ball line.
The kick-chase team of Cleary, Tyrone Peachey and Isaah Yeo forced Lachlan Maranta back into the in-goal and from the ensuing set Penrith skipper Matt Moylan crossed to take their lead out to 24-6 and prompted Sterling to compare the youngster to Thurston's near perfect display against the Bulldogs 24 hours earlier.
"The kick from Nathan Cleary was better than anything from Johnathan Thurston [on Thursday night]," Sterling said in Channel Nine commentary.
A 60-metre James Roberts runaway try allowed the Broncos to bridge the gap to 12 points eight minutes from full-time before Moylan's calmly potted field goal five minutes from the end sealed their return to the top eight.
Trent Merrin capped a marvellous 150th game in the NRL by fighting through three Brisbane defenders close to the line and scoring to the right of the posts in the final minute to go with his 249 running metres and 33 tackles.
Having blundered their way through the first half against Parramatta last week the Panthers began like a team desperate to prove they have genuine finals aspirations, taking an 18-0 lead into half-time that could have been even more.
Waqa Blake botched a golden opportunity to score in the eighth minute after perfect lead-up by Bryce Cartwright and Moylan but managed to make up for it less than a minute later, snatching a spilled Ben Hunt bomb on his own goal-line and racing 99 metres to score the opening try of the game.
A disinterested looking Brisbane team were put under further pressure when Corey Oates cold dropped a bomb 10 metres out from his own line and again Penrith punished them to the full extent.
From the next set Leilani Latu went to the line before delivering a deft pass to a rampaging James Fisher-Harris who although brought down short of the line was running so hard that momentum carried him as far as the try-line and a 12-0 lead.
Brisbane bombed their first genuine chance in the 20th minute when Oates couldn't haul in a Darius Boyd pass but the worst was still to come.
Six minutes from half-time Ben Hunt attempted a short drop-out that not only failed to travel the 10 metres required but also went out on the full, gifting the visitors a penalty goal from in front of the posts to extend their lead to 14 points.
To compound Brisbane's woes the Panthers ran the exact same move that Blake butchered earlier in the game and this time it produced points in the final minute of the first half, Zak Hardaker slicing through and pushing past Anthony Milford to score his first try in the NRL to go with his 67 with Leeds in the Super League.
Having watched the entire game from the bench last week Hardaker replaced Blake who left the field with concussion suffered when he fell from a great height contesting a bomb in the 27th minute and was unable to return.
Staring down the barrel of an 18-point deficit at half-time the Broncos failed to complete two of their opening three sets of the second half but eventually got themselves into the contest when Darius Boyd pushed through a poor attempt at tackle from Cartwright at the 58th minute mark but never got closer than 12 points of the Panthers.
Penrith Panthers 31 (Waqa Blake, James Fisher-Harris, Zak Hardaker, Matt Moylan, Trent Merrin tries; Nathan Cleary 5 goals, Moylan field goal) def. Brisbane Broncos 12 (Darius Boyd, James Roberts tries; Corey Parker 2 goals) at Suncorp Stadium. Crowd: 30,878. Half-time: Panthers 18-0.