Cleary welcomes return of halves partner Maloney
The sight of a free-running James Maloney at training on Monday could not have come quickly enough for the Panthers faithful.
Penrith halfback Nathan Cleary welcomed the return of his NSW halves partner ahead of Friday's night match against the Storm at AAMI Park as he maps out a way of rediscovering his own personal form after a self-confessed lean period.
"A fair bit, I think everyone does [miss him]," Cleary said of Maloney.
"A player of Jimmy's calibre, it has a negative effect on the team all round [when he's missing] I suppose. It is good to have him back and form that combination.
"Within the group there was a much better feel than the week before against Newcastle. There's some positives to take out of that, but technically we weren't great. A lot of that has gone on at training."
Cleary accepted the criticism that has gone his way since Origin concluded, but refused to use the loss of Maloney and off-field speculation as the excuse into his patchy form.
He raced the clock to overcome a lingering knee injury before Origin I, and has been forced to answer questions around his own future and the chances of him linking with his father for months.
Cleary offered an honest assessment of his personal form in 2018.
"It's been inconsistent and I'm working hard to turn that around,'' he said. "It is disappointing to know I'm letting the boys down in that aspect.
"I definitely can't use [external noise] as an excuse. I think at the start it was hard, it takes a toll on me but I can't use that as an excuse. I had to eliminate things out of my life like social media to stop reading all the constant speculation.
"I think it's been like that the whole year, as a halfback you're always going to get targeted a bit more and that's something you've got to deal with and move forward. You've got to keep working hard and add things to my game to counter that."
The Panthers can finish as high as second going into their final round clash with Melbourne, or could slump to as low as eighth if they lose.
"The way we've been playing the last six weeks, no one is happy with it," Cleary said.
"It is a massive opportunity on Friday night to turn it around and put in a good performance. It's a really weird comp and close comp which makes it exciting for the fans. It's a see-sawing affair at the moment and a new comp starts next weekend into the finals."
Panthers trio Tyrone Peachey (cork) Corey Harawira-Naera (concussion protocol) and Wayde Egan (knee) missed the afternoon session. Egan will learn of the results of a scan on his medial ligasment injury on Tuesday.