Nathan Cleary has warmed up for State of Origin II with another masterclass, leading Penrith to a 38-12 thrashing of the Sydney Roosters.
Amid questions of how he would rebound after Origin I, Cleary appeared to have the ball on a string in arguably his finest performance of the year.
The Penrith half-back effectively booted the Roosters out of the match with his kicking game, while also setting up two tries and scoring one.
But the night wasn’t without drama, with Roosters prop Siosiua Taukeiaho sin-binned in the first half for clocking a slipping Cleary high.
Referee Ashley Klein claimed there was “no mitigating factors” in the high shot, despite Cleary falling significantly on the wet Penrith turf.
The decision helped the Panthers swing the match in their favour, going from 12-6 down to 20-6 up while Taukeiaho was off the field.
And Cleary was at the centre of all of it, still sporting a bloodshot right eye after friendly fire in the Origin opener cut him open.
After the Panthers went down 12-0 early, he pounced on Penrith’s first attacking opportunity when he grubbered on the third tackle for a chasing Stephen Crichton to score.
Jarome Luai and Matt Burton then put Brian To’o over to level the scores, before their next try proved to be the pick of the night.
After the Roosters failed to find touch from a penalty, the Panthers spread it the width of the field before Spencer Leniu busted through coming back the other way.
From the next play Cleary dummied his way back across to the left for Burton to straighten up and step his way through, before an-out-in-front ball put To’o over.
That came as part of seven straight sets for the Panthers, as Cleary completely dominated the game.
In the 20 minutes before the break Penrith had an incredible 94 per cent of the ball, with Cleary forcing three dropouts in as many sets.
The number seven then put Isaah Yeo over after the break when the Penrith lock straightened and brushed his way through.
And he had one of his own when he chased through on his own bomb and scooped up a loose ball to force his way over.
Liam Martin also chased everything, with NSW coach Brad Fittler revealing midway through the match that Manly’s Jake Trbojevic was injured, effectively ensuring Martin and Angus Crichton would be in the Blues’s squad for next Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Roosters’ record against the competition’s top sides remains a concern, now 0-4 against fellow top-five teams.
Sharks survive late Cowboys surge
Resurgent Cronulla has registered four NRL wins in a row for the first time since 2018 as it held on to beat fast-finishing North Queensland 26-24 in Townsville.
The Sharks led 26-12 with eight minutes remaining before the Cowboys conjured up another of their trademark comebacks only to fall just short.
Kyle Feldt led the fightback, crossing with seven minutes to play before a cheeky play by the Origin winger saw him bag another try just a minute later.
Feldt simply reached around Scott Drinkwater to touch down in the corner after the playmaker was tackled just short of the line.
Cowboys full-back Valentine Holmes then came up short with a 43-metre field goal attempt in the final minute that would have levelled the scores.
The hectic final 10 minutes couldn’t dampen a consistent and strong display by Josh Hannay’s Sharks (6-8), who enter the NRL’s top eight after losing six games in a row early in the season.
They had a fine game in attack, led by halves Shaun Johnson and Matt Moylan, and their defensive pressure forced the Cowboys into basic errors.
Drinkwater’s last-tackle options didn’t put enough pressure on the Sharks, while his opposite number Johnson created with his usual flair.
Unwanted by his club next season, Johnson also finished a perfect 5/5 off the boot and the visitors’ sole second-half try to centre Will Chambers created a big enough margin to eke out the win.
The Sharks took an eight-point lead into the break on the back of easy metres made up the middle.
Enjoying a 65 per cent share of territory over the first 40 minutes, Siosifa Talakai and Aaron Woods were the backbone of Cronulla’s pack, creating an easy platform for Moylan and Johnson.
Cronulla had raced out to a 12-0 lead after 10 minutes as Johnson grubbered for Connor Tracey to score and Woods crashed over from close range.
The Cowboys were quick to hit back through Tom Dearden, who scored a try in his home debut after a heads-up decision by Drinkwater.
Their left-edge attack was well-read by the Sharks, and Drinkwater spun around and shifted the ball to his halves partner who dummied past Talakai from 20 metres out.
Johnson added a penalty after a high shot in the 25th minute, before the Cowboys bagged their second try after Lachlan Burr was dragged down just short of the line.
After a quick play-the-ball Dearden found Francis Molo fresh off the bench to crash over.
The Sharks bagged a crucial try before halftime when Holmes knocked on and from the resulting scrum William Kennedy turned the defence inside-out before gifting Ronaldo Mulitalo an easy put down.