Nathan Cleary won't return in Saturday night’s match against the Roosters as the Panthers aim to ensure the club’s record State of Origin representation doesn’t derail their premiership hopes.
After winning their opening 12 matches of the season, Penrith appeared set to emulate last year’s unbeaten 17-game run into the grand final but have lost three of their seven matches since the teams were selected for the opening Origin on June 9.
Cleary, lock Isaah Yeo, five-eighth Jarome Luai, winger Brian To’o, second-rower Liam Martin and hooker Api Koroisau were all in the NSW squad and utility Kurt Capewell played for Queensland - the highest number of Panthers ever in Origin.
The seven Origin stars missed the round 13 loss to Wests Tigers and have not all played together since.
Cleary has been sidelined by a shoulder injury since Origin II and Luai (knee), Yeo (HIA) and To’o (ankle) have also been sidelined.
Roosters v Panthers - Round 21
Koroisau was also suspended for breaching the NRL's COVID-19 biosecurity protocols while in camp with the Blues.
Penrith coach Ivan Cleary admitted that coping with such a large Origin representation was a new experience but he is confident that it won't lead to an end-of-season slump.
"We certainly didn’t go through an Origin period or a period with so many changes last year," Cleary said.
"In days gone by, we have had a couple of players involved but certainly not the amount, and they were probably key players.
What is your first footy memory?
"We probably had that nice rhythm going earlier this year that we had almost all of the way through last year, but this has been a different experience."
In addition to Origin, the Panthers have had to re-locate to South-East Queensland and deal with issues like prop James Fisher-Harris returning to Sydney to be his partner for the birth of their first child and a heavy injury toll.
"There are lots of things going on, not just for our team but all teams," Cleary said. "But the Origin thing was a big one, with the seven guys regularly in there and not training or playing.
"It is a real lesson for myself, personally, but we have got a good staff here who are involved with Origin and are connected to a lot of people who have gone through this."
Managing Nathan Cleary’s injury is another issue and Ivan Cleary said the second-placed Panthers didn’t want to take any risks by rushing him back.
New recruit Tevita Pangai jnr has also been forced to delay his debut for Penrith after returning home to Brisbane on Thursday as he and partner Anna deal with a "deeply personal and sensitive matter".
Cleary said Nathan would have played if it was a finals match and he would make his return in coming weeks.
In footy and in life, be there for an offload
"There have been many examples of players playing with injuries. Cooper Cronk is probably the one in everyone’s memory recently," he said.
"It is not like that but there is no need to be pushing him.
"There is still a lot of footy to be played as well. We want him to be able to not just hold up physically but for him to be able to play well. We are really confident that when we pull the trigger that will be the case."
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