Penrith has moved to the top of the NRL ladder – for now at least – after a 20-12 defeat of South Sydney at Kogarah.
The Panthers led throughout the contest and never looked in serious trouble against a Rabbitohs side that made too many errors and was out-played through the middle.
The game will be remembered for Nathan Cleary’s heroics – it was revealed post-game that he had been in hospital 24 hours earlier being treated for cellulitis.
Penrith opened the scoring in the sixth minute when Brent Naden – brought into the side as a late replacement for Josh Mansour – dived over out wide; the beneficiary of a Cleary kick that Souths failed to defuse.
Naden almost crossed again twice in the first half – called back for a forward pass on one occasion and being tackled into touch just short of the line on another.
But it was still Penrith next to score – Stephen Crichton pouncing on a perfectly placed Jarome Luai kick to extend the lead to 8-0 12 minutes short of the break.
Both sides had their chances in the lead-up to half-time but neither troubled the scorer – the Panthers maintaining the eight point advantage when both sides headed for the sheds.
Souths started the second half with momentum and eventually the weight of possession saw them break Penrith’s stoic defensive line, Bailey Sironen crossing in the 50th minute.
The match turned into an arm wrestle through the middle period of the second stanza, the Panthers edging further ahead when Dylan Edwards scored his first try of the season with 20 minutes to go. Cleary missed his third straight conversion attempt of the night – Penrith staying up 12-6.
Cleary finally landed a two-pointer 11 minutes from full-time when James Roberts was sin-binned for a professional foul, allowing the Panthers to open up a 14-6 lead.
Plenty of ball in Souths territory and a second sin-binning – this time Latrell Mitchell – eventually wore the Rabbitohs down, and Cleary scored a strong individual try to ice the game a few minutes from full-time.
The Rabbitohs grabbed a late consolation try – but the Panthers had done enough.
Penrith coach Ivan Cleary said Nathan was adamant he wanted to play despite the medical worries.
“The antibiotics weren’t really working and he was in hospital almost all of yesterday,” he said.
“Infections are a little tricky… he had scans yesterday to make sure it hadn’t got in his sinus area.”
Cleary was also full of praise for Cleary’s halves partner Jarome Luai, who performed strongly.
“He came up with some good plays – it was good that he could take some pressure off Nathan too,” he said.
“He is seeing things better all the time.”
Souths coach Wayne Bennett said the Panthers controlled the ball better than his side throughout the contest.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Senior Writer. He has more than 15 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations.