Cleary stars as Panthers down Warriors

A virtuoso performance from 19-year-old-halfback Nathan Cleary lifted the Penrith Panthers to a 34-22 victory over the Warriors in Auckland on Friday night.

Having headed into Round 19 tied on points with the Kiwi side, and sitting just outside the top eight, the victory in chilly conditions at Mt Smart Stadium may well be one Penrith look back on as season-defining.

Cleary scored 22 of the visitors' points on his own, and had direct involvement in the other three four-pointers scored by Corey Harawira-Naera, Tyrone May and Waqa Blake.

If the pain of suffering their ninth defeat of the year wasn't enough, the Warriors may also be facing an immediate future without star halfback Shaun Johnson, who left the field with a knee injury on 62 minutes and didn't return.

Penrith invited pressure immediately, getting pinged for a shoulder charge on the first set of the game, which the Warriors duly turned into points via a Simon Mannering try and Johnson conversion.

The Panthers soon found their way in the contest, and hit back on 13 minutes after back-to-back sets which finished in with Harawira-Naera getting on the end of a Cleary grubber.

Centre Blake dropped the ensuing kick-off, and before the scoreboard attendant had time to resume their seat Solomone Kata had given the Warriors the lead once again with a burrowing effort from dummy-half.

Offloads from Cleary and Trent Merrin pierced through the heart of the Warriors' defence, and saw standoff May go over for a try on NRL Telstra Premiership debut, before Cleary decided to do it all on his own for their third, taking the ball to the line and beating would-be tackles from Mannering and Bunty Afoa.

Cleary converted to take his first-half haul to 10 points and leave the Panthers up 18-12 at the break.

After an opening stanza where they completed 14 of 18 uses of the ball, the Panthers fumbled on both of their opening two sets in the second, and it quickly got worse when Harawira-Naera was sent to the sin-bin for obstructing on a Warriors quick tap.

The home side took full advantage of the numerical advantage on the field to reassume the lead, with Kata grabbing his second and Bodene Thompson finishing a crisp right-side shift.

A lovely interchange of passing through the middle of the ruck saw Dylan Edwards break and find Cleary on a draw and pass for a try with 13 minutes left which squeezed the remaining life out of the Warriors.

From there Anthony Griffin's side ran in two more tries in the final 10 minutes, Cleary grabbing his third and Blake punishing an abysmal effort from the Warriors to defuse a bomb, leaving the final score at 34-22.

The only potential downside for Penrith is the loss of stand-in captain Merrin to a knee injury in the first half, with the lock failing to return to the field.

Penrith Panthers 34 (Nathan Cleary 3, Corey Harawira-Naera, Tyrone May, Waqa Blake tries; Nathan Cleary 5 goals) def. New Zealand Warriors 22 (Solomone Kata 2, Simon Mannering, Bodene Thompson tries; Shaun Johnson 2, Issac Luke 1 goals) at Mt Smart Stadium. Crowd: 13,076. Half-time: Panthers 18-12.

NRL.com unofficial votes: 3 points: Nathan Cleary. 2 points: Reagan Campbell-Gillard. 1 point: Solomone Kata.