Cleary rubbishes talk he's better without Maloney

Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary rejects the notion he performs better without James Maloney but admits the duo can be guilty of going missing throughout matches.

Five of Penrith's 10 victories have come when Maloney or Cleary were sidelined - the playmakers inspiring three and two wins respectively in the other's absence.

Cleary was brilliant two rounds ago during a triumph against Cronulla with Maloney suspended but struggled in a sloppy loss to Brisbane last week on his experienced partner's return.

"I've had success with James there as well," Cleary said. "We played Origin together and we were able to win that.

"I don't think my game was too different on the weekend, obviously there were a few less opportunities and that comes back on us as a team. We just didn't hold the ball enough.

"Me and James keep working on our combination and sometimes it falls in and out of games. I think on the weekend it wasn't so much mine and James's combination that was the issue, it was holding the ball and coming up with the wrong plays at the wrong time I suppose."

While the debate about the Cleary and Maloney partnership will soon be pointless with the latter moving to the Super League next year, they must find their collective rhythm for the Panthers to reach the finals. 

Cleary, 21, branded Friday's critical road clash with North Queensland an early "grand final" given the magnitude of the situation.

Penrith dropped to ninth following the 24-12 defeat versus the Broncos but will likely scrape into the top eight if they win their remaining three matches.

So tight is the middle of the Telstra Premiership ladder that Cleary said the Panthers were tearing into training as if they were playing a decider every round.

"It's pretty much like a grand final week for us," Cleary said. "But in saying that, the last two weeks we've been preparing like that.

"That's what the disappointing thing about last week was - we prepared really well and really hard and knew it was a game we needed to win and we let that one slip.

"It puts us in bit of a tough position now and obviously it's a must-win game."

Aside from a mid-year seven-match winning streak, inconsistency has plagued Penrith and threatens to keep them from featuring in the playoffs.

While he and Maloney have copped the brunt of the criticism aimed at the side, Cleary believes the team's work without the ball is both their biggest downfall and strength.

"[The inconsistency] is very frustrating. I think probably the main issue is the best games we've played have been built off our defence," he said.

"Our best footy is when we get into a cycle in a game and it's usually when it's close at half-time."

Penrith conducted a video session which made for tough viewing on Monday, powerhouse back-rower Viliame Kikau saying he was "utterly disappointed" in the lacklustre effort last round.

"It wasn't up to our standards. The boys are holding themselves accountable with what we did. We'll learn from that and this week has to be different," Kikau said.

"The preps been good through the week ... It just gets to the game and it's a different team playing altogether. Most of the games we've lost we've been killing ourselves. We've been doing stuff we don't practise at training."