It was a long way from redemption or easing all the pain and disappointment of the Blues’ 16-10 loss to Queensland in the State of Origin series-opener in Sydney last Wednesday.
But for Panthers and NSW halfback Nathan Cleary, playing a starring role in Penrith’s 42-6 clinic against Newcastle at McDonald Jones Stadium on Sunday was a pretty good place to start.
The 24-year-old playmaker did as he pleased against the Knights, scoring the first of Penrith’s seven tries before having a hand in the other six, kicking seven goals from eight attempts, and adding a booming 40-20 and an 80-metre line drop-out to boot.
Penrith’s fifth straight win and 13th for the season kept the defending premiers on top of the table on 26 points with a four-point buffer over Melbourne heading into their next match against the Warriors at Redcliffe next Saturday.
Cleary and Luai combination in top gear
Hammered and harassed by Queensland defenders on a rare off-night night last Wednesday, Cleary bore the brunt of criticism after the game, but his Penrith forwards ensured he and halves partner Jarome Luai had all the time and space they needed against Newcastle.
“I knew he was going to come out and get man of the match, or be close,” Panthers assistant coach Cameron Ciraldo said.
“It was pretty unfair the criticism he copped from Wednesday night, but we know exactly what he brings to our team, and we wouldn’t swap him for anyone.”
Cleary talks about backing up from Origin
Cleary said he made the most of two days off after Origin I to rest, recover, reflect, and recharge for his next assignment against Newcastle.
“Getting the body right was the easy thing. I think it was probably more the mental side of it,” Cleary explained at the post-match media conference.
“That’s the hardest part, especially after a disappointing loss, just trying to sort of assess that then put it behind and focus on this game.
“I’m pretty lucky with the group we have here, they just bring that energy back up and it was a pleasure to be back around them and it made me feel good, ready to go.
“I had two days off after, so that gave me time to assess what happened and put it behind me then focus on this game. I was kind of lucky that we were able to back up this weekend and just get out there and play again, so it was good.
“These boys are a pleasure to be around. They lift the energy and lift our spirits after a loss too, so it was good to come up here and get a win like that, and as I said, I was just glad to play again after a not so good game on Wednesday.
It gave me another opportunity to get better and to play better.Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary
Of Penrith’s six NSW representatives, only lock Isaah Yeo was rested for the game against the Knights. Brian To’o scored two tries, Stephen Crichton crossed under the posts after another Cleary assist, and Liam Martin was given an early-mark midway through the second half.
“They came in Friday, just for some meetings and recovery, and they were a little bit down, but they definitely didn’t let it affect what they were doing,” Ciraldo said.
“They were engaged in meetings and tried to help out the team as best they could, but yesterday for our captain’s run, there was a noticeable change.
Brian To'o's spectacular double
“The boys were smiling and had a real good energy about them and you could tell they were really focused to come up here and play really well, so it’s a credit to them; just so unselfish of them.”
Ciraldo and coach Ivan Cleary, who was dialling in instructions from home as he deals with an ongoing knee issue, considered replacing Nathan before full-time but he was having none of it.
“Just the way we were going, it was pretty fun being out there and I wanted to put in an 80-minute stint,” Cleary said.
Ciraldo said it was more important to give Martin a rest because “he played 80 minutes on Wednesday and he made 50 tackles, so he was probably the guy we thought needed to come off”.
“Obviously we would have liked Nathan to come off as well, but we sort of ran out of interchanges,” Ciraldo said. “And I think Nathan was pretty keen to play the whole 80 minutes and put his stamp on it.”