Panthers forward Viliame Kikau.

Two months ago the Panthers were almost dead and buried.

Ready to be put down. Not playing like a team, and with confidence at an all-time low.  

But on Friday, there was a smile from coach Ivan Cleary. The Panthers are back, into the top eight for the first time in 2019 and eyeing the once unlikeliest of charges towards the finals after their sixth straight win.

The scary fact? They're yet to put their best performance together, according to the Panthers coach.

"Now we've got a good injection," Cleary said.

"It just goes to show when you go through those tough times, and it sounds like a bit of a cliché but you do learn stuff and end up better for it.

"It doesn't feel like it at the time. It was one of those phases that is horrible to go through but feels like a long time ago.

"We've got our best footy in front of us whereas a lot of teams are scratching their way through the year. I think we're building, which is good.

"We definitely created enough chances which we struggled to convert a few but asked a lot of questions.

"Defensively I thought we scrambled well and come up with some big stops at time but I thought we were loose. It was just that style of game."

Cleary declared son Nathan would return next week against the Dragons after he was a late scratching from the 19-man squad after falling short of recovering from the ankle injury that left him out of Origin III.

The coach paid tribute to James Maloney, who backed up less than 48 hours after the Origin decider to help orchestrate two tries to Brian To'o in the 24-2 win.

"[Nathan] probably could've played tonight if Jimmy Maloney couldn't back up but it's going to be better for him long-term," Cleary said.

"I'm glad it worked out. I can't thank [Maloney] enough, really. It's pretty amazing how rugby league players are able to do this. He got on the phone to me yesterday, I think he had about an hours sleep, and he said 'don't play Nathan, I'll be right'.

"That's what you want from a senior player. He certainly backed it up."

Panthers: Round 17

Sign up for a free NRL Account to access this video and other exclusive content.

Already have an NRL Account?

Not sure? Learn more about NRL Account