A week dominated by Cleary talk will end with more Cleary talk, after Nathan Cleary kicked Penrith to the most unlikely of victories against the Wests Tigers in golden point at Panthers Stadium on Friday night.
It looked as though Penrith’s nightmare season would go from bad to worse and provide the Tigers the last laugh on Ivan Cleary, however his son stepped up when it mattered to seal a 9-8 win.
Nathan’s sideline conversion after the siren sent the match to golden point, before the Blues halfback nailed a 40-metre field goal to sink the Tigers in extra-time.
"I've thought of that kick a thousand times in my mind," Cleary said.
I've dreamt about it. I've kicked it down at the park a million times when no one is watching. I'm pretty grateful that went over.
"We needed that tonight ... I've thought about it in my head the whole week. I've struggled to sleep this week thinking how the game was going to end. I thought the field goal over in my head before. You couldn't write about it."
The Tigers scored two tries to one, but three missed goals from Esan Marsters proved costly despite an in impressive return for Josh Reynolds, who set up both his side’s tries.
Some were still calling it the Cleary Cup, despite the fact both Clearys were now in the same dressing room.
Match: Panthers v Wests Tigers
Round 4 -
Venue: Panthers Stadium, Penrith
- Nine Network
- LIVE PASS
But as it was when they were at separate clubs, the build up to the Tigers-Panthers game was all about two people.
Nathan, because his form has been well below his lofty standard.
And Ivan, because … well, we know why.
“There was a lot of Ivan this week,” Panthers winger Josh Mansour said.
“We wanted to play for our coach. The Tigers are like an ex that won’t go away for him. We wanted to play for him, but also play for each other. There was a lot of emotion coming into this game."
In the end it was his son's boot that saved the Panthers from a week of soul-searching if they slumped to their third loss from four games.
"It's a massive relief," Nathan Cleary said.
"It means a lot, obviously with all the media around this week. We don't want to make it about us, especially myself and dad.
"There were a lot bigger things to play for tonight. As special as it is for me and dad, it's for the whole team. Winning solves everything. Me and dad spoke about it during the week - we just need to get a few wins on the board."
Penrith’s attack has been unrecognisable, scoring just 39 points in four rounds.
So much so, Channel Nine’s Peter Sterling raised concerns over James Maloney and Cleary holding on to their positions in the NSW team, with coach Brad Fittler conceding the pair weren’t gelling.
“These two blokes have to try and work together,” Fittler said on Channel Nine.
“They just don’t combine well together at the moment.”
Then Cleary stepped up with the poise and composure that has seen him elevated to superstar status in the NRL.
The Panthers came into Friday night’s game with the second worst attack in the competition after three rounds, giving further reason for concern when they failed to turn an early onslaught into meaningful points.
Although they didn’t leave completely empty handed, landing a penalty goal from close range to take a 2-0 lead midway through the opening half.
Marsters should have levelled the scores a few sets later, however the Wests Tigers centre missed a penalty goal from in front.
However it triggered a dramatic change in possession, with the Tigers showing their rivals how to convert pressure into points when Josh Reynolds’ grubber found Corey Thompson.
It was a huge confidence boost for Reynolds, who continued his impressive return to the NRL by forcing a repeat set in his side’s next attacking raid.
The hands of Dylan Edwards, who made six errors in Penrith’s heavy loss to Melbourne in greasy conditions the week before, continued to desert him on what was another wet track.
Thankfully for the home side, the Tigers were unable to punish them as their defence held firm to head into the break trailing just 4-2.
Edwards’ struggles forced Cleary to move Dallin Watene-Zelezniak to fullback, pushing Edwards to the wing in the hope of changing his team’s fortunes with the ball.
Penrith had all the ball to open the second half but once again lacked the creativity or the discipline to penetrate the Tigers defence.
At the other end Reynolds had the ball on a string, grubbering for Ryan Matterson to give the Tigers an 8-2 lead.
The fact Marsters missed a penalty goal and two conversion attempts kept the Panthers in the game, while the fact Villiame Kikau dropped the ball short of the line courtesy of a strong tackle from Moses Mbye only compounded Penrith’s woes.
While Penrith’s attack left much to be desired, the Tigers defence was back to the resolute unit we saw in the opening two weeks of the competition.
Missed field goals to Luke Brooks and Reynolds to push the lead to seven points would prove costly, with Edwards scoring out wide and Cleary converting to send the match into golden point. The rest belonged to Nathan Cleary.