Masked Panther: Cleary was a given for Origin

Nathan Cleary. Photo: NRL Photos
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I won’t declare it as a ‘scoop confirmed’ given it was being reported in so many places, but as I predicted several weeks ago, Nathan Cleary has retained his NSW number 7 jersey for next Wednesday’s State of Origin series opener. Blues coach Brad Fittler was desperate to keep Cleary in the side and has confidence that he’ll be the Blues’ long-term halfback. James Maloney enjoys no such luxury – he’s towards the end of his career and Fittler knew Cleary needed an in-form five-eighth next to him in the Origin arena.

Talking of Maloney, there’s genuine talk that he could be gone from the Panthers by June 30. With Penrith’s Finals hopes all but evaporated, it’s likely the club will take the chance to ensure the probable 2020 halves combination of Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai gets more time to gel. That could pave the way for Maloney to head to England early, with rumours already linking him to Leeds.

Sam McKendry made his long-awaited return from a knee injury in Canterbury Cup last weekend, and he had plenty of fans cheering him on at Ringrose Park. A huge chunk of players from Penrith’s NRL squad made the trip to watch the Panthers battle the Magpies and throw their support behind McKendry, whose career has been cruelled by constant knee problems in recent years. McKendry got through the game, and may even find himself back in the NRL team by the end of the season.

Sam McKendry was supported by his teammates.

I’m told the Dallin Watene-Zelezniak drama at Penrith has its roots in two significant issues. Firstly, the New Zealand Test skipper has fallen out with coach Ivan Cleary. Secondly, he’s concerned about the culture at the club. What is certain is that Watene-Zelezniak has played his last game for the team. Even without a release finalised, Penrith sought special exemption to allow Brent Naden to play in the centres against Manly, not even considering the prospect of playing Watene-Zelezniak. I’m also hearing Penrith is very unlikely to contribute to the 23-year-old’s contract elsewhere.

Spotted: Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Isaah Yeo enjoying a hearty breakfast at High Street Depot on Monday morning.

Horrible news for centre Waqa Blake who suffered a grade three medial ligament tear against the Eels last weekend. It’ll force the 24-year-old to sit on the sidelines for up to 10 weeks in a major blow to Penrith’s outside chances of making the Finals. In further bad news, Dean Whare will also be out for an extended period after he suffered a grade two hamstring tear in the Parramatta match. He’s likely to be out for up to six weeks.

Waqa Blake on the sidelines last weekend. Photo: NRL Photos

Panthers coach Ivan Cleary was very open in his post-match press conference last Thursday night, but his pre-match media briefings are still raising plenty of eyebrows. Cleary refuses to talk about even the simplest of team selections, as if it’s akin to a state secret. Last week he even refused to provide comment on Josh Mansour and Reagan Campbell-Gillard being recalled to first grade after a week in Canterbury Cup. Plenty of journalists, and more importantly fans, are fed up with the way the pressers are being handled.

Next month will mark 27 years since one of Penrith’s darkest days – the tragic death of Ben Alexander in a car accident. While his brother and Panthers legend Greg Alexander has spoken on-and-off about Ben over the years, he’s opened up extensively as part of a new road safety campaign. You can find the video online – it’s well worth looking at not just from a Penrith perspective but for any parent who may have kids hitting the road for the first time. NSW coach and former Panther Brad Fittler is also part of the campaign.

Could Jared Waerea-Hargreaves be about to head to the foot of the Mountains? There’s plenty of speculation around suggesting that the Panthers could chase the Roosters enforcer for next season in a bid to add some mongrel and premiership experience to their forward pack.

Penrith’s win over the Eels last weekend and the subsequent footage inside the winning dressing room reminded us of a very scary thing that needs addressing at the club: XXXX is the drink of choice for a post-match celebration beverage. What’s doing?

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