Penrith to navigate next two months without Nathan Cleary

Nathan Cleary leaves the field on Friday night. Photo: NRL Photos.
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Eight weeks will determine whether Penrith can win a fourth straight NRL title, as they confront the middle of the season without the game’s best player leading them around the park.

The Panthers confirmed this morning that Nathan Cleary suffered a grade two hamstring tear against the Bulldogs on Friday night, the same hamstring that saw him miss a chunk of games in the early part of the season.

The club expects him to be out for eight weeks.

“He’s pretty shattered actually, it’s very disappointing for him,” Panthers coach Ivan Cleary said post-game on Friday night.

Penrith sit in second position on the ladder and are on track to finish in the top four. But just how they navigate this next eight weeks will decide their Premiership fate.

Working in the side’s favour is that they’ve been here before. Through suspension, Origin representation and injury, Cleary hasn’t played a full season of games in any of the team’s Premiership triumph seasons.

But this time around, the understudy is not waiting in the wings. Brad Schneider, brought to the club this year to fill in for Cleary when needed, suffered a bad leg injury in reserve grade on Friday and is expected to be out for at least a month.

It means Jarome Luai will likely play halfback, with Jack Cole at five-eighth.

Jarome Luai is set to fill in for Cleary. Photo: NRL Photos.

There’s a touch of irony in that, with Luai set to wear the number seven jersey at the Wests Tigers next season.

This is Luai’s time to not only prove his worth to the Tigers but to leave one final piece of history on a special Penrith legacy.

Penrith start their odyssey without Cleary on the road, with a Magic Round clash against the out-of-form Warriors next Sunday before taking on top-of-the-table Cronulla a week later.

Clashes against the Dragons, Sea Eagles and Knights follow – two of those at home – before a bye in Round 16.

It’s then a Queensland double against the Cowboys and Broncos before another bye and then Cleary’s likely return against the Dolphins on Sunday, July 21 at BlueBet Stadium.

By then, the task confronting Cleary over the competition’s most defining period will be known.

But regardless of what Cleary can do in the final month and a half of the regular season, it will be the next eight weeks without him that will define Penrith’s fate this season.

If they still finish in the top four after such a setback, you’d be a fool to rule them out of a fourth straight Premiership.

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