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Bubble bliss: COVID-19 rules turn secret weapon in Panthers title tilt

COVID-19 restrictions may have cost Nathan Cleary $30,000 and a couple of games, but the star No.7 believes the NRL's bubble life could prove a key factor in Penrith's premiership tilt.

Cleary made headlines in April and copped a five-figure punishment for misleading the NRL Integrity Unit over his Anzac Day TikTok video, when he breached coronavirus protocols.

But aside from Cleary's expensive slip-up, the Panthers have made bubble life look good, losing just once all season to loom as the club's best premiership hope since 2003.

Such a stunning run would normally result in all manner of hype and media attention, particularly with the Cleary father-son dynamic.

But due to COVID-19 restrictions Penrith's young squad will be spared plenty of the usual obligations that come with a finals appearance.

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"It's been weird this year, and it's kind of sad not being able to interact with fans – we love all their support,'' Cleary said.

"Come finals time, there's a lot more hype and media and eyes on you. It's something you have to deal with. But it will be different this year and it might help.''

While the inability to cope with the COVID-19 shutdown has been cited as a key factor in Brisbane's annus horribilis, the Panthers' handling of the situation saw them hit the NRL's re-started competition in peak condition and simply go from there.

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Penrith's youthful squad – the second youngest in the NRL on average behind the Broncos – was all smiles as they completed a teamwide media session on Monday.

Tyrone May's electric scooter was a popular distraction in the middle of Panthers Stadium, while the likes of Brent Naden and Jarome Luai charged around in the western Sydney sun as reporters chased much-needed shade.

"It's been crazy with some of the young guys in this team," Cleary said.

"It's their first season but they've been up, up, up the whole time.

"I know in my first season I was just happy to be there. But these guys are trying to get better each week and it's a pleasure to be around.

"They've just got so much confidence.

"Going into that Parra game a couple of weeks ago, it was the biggest game we had had for a while, there was a fair bit of nervous energy around.

"But that was going to put us in good stead leading into the finals, it was a good rehearsal.

"Finals footy is a whole new comp, we'll need to take it up a notch, but we're capable of doing it. The way we've been playing, it will hold up in finals footy."

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