Penrith’s on-field mastermind Nathan Cleary is a “good chance” to line up for his side’s clash with the Dragons this Friday.
The star halfback injured his right shoulder in the second game of this year’s State of Origin series and has not played at club level since.
The 23-year-old was named in the extended squad to face the Roosters last weekend but did not take his place in the 17. Coach Ivan Cleary said his son’s outlook was better for round 22.
“I said last week he was more unlikely to play than play, this week he’s more likely to play than not,” Cleary told reporters on Thursday.
“We’ve still got a training session to do, but at this stage he’s a good chance.”
Cleary last played for the Panthers in their round 15 win over the Roosters. Picture: Mark Kolbe/Getty ImagesSource:Getty Images
The Panthers have been meticulous in preparing Nathan to re-enter the fray, taking no chances with their star player’s shoulder as they look to avenge last year’s grand final heartbreak.
“We’re working in conjunction with our medical staff, performance staff and also Nathan as well,” Ivan Cleary said.
“Nat’s been obviously an ongoing process for some time. We’ve always said that we feel like when he’s ready we’ll pull the trigger and he’s very close.
“He definitely wants to get out there, but he’s been pretty mature and understanding about the whole situation.
“I think he himself knows that he doesn’t want to play unless he’s ticked every box in terms of his preparation.”
The Panthers will hope Cleary’s return can restore some much-needed fluency to their offence.
Penrith hasn’t lost in 2021 when Cleary has featured in the side, and while last week’s defeat of the Roosters was the best evidence yet that the side can grind out wins without him, the Panthers’ chances of upsetting the ladder-leading Storm without Cleary seem remote.
Matt Burton steered the ship in Penrith’s victory over the Roosters. Picture: NRL PhotosSource:Supplied
However, injecting Cleary into the action prematurely could be catastrophic for Penrith – just last week, Parramatta’s Reed Mahoney aggravated a pre-existing shoulder injury of his own in the side’s loss to South Sydney.
The Eels would’ve been counting on Mahoney and his trademark high workrate to feature in their September footy campaign, but they’ll now have to soldier on without one of their most consistent performers.
Mahoney’s injury would have been a sobering reminder to the Panthers not to take any chances with their talisman and his own shaky shoulder.
Meanwhile, coach Cleary said Brian To’o was progressing well after undergoing successful surgery on an injured ankle.
The nuggety winger had been enjoying a stellar season prior to his injury, averaging in excess of 200 metres per game and routinely putting his hand up for tough carries out of Penrith territory.
The NSW Origin representative should return in time for the play-offs, coach Cleary said.
“‘Bizza’ should be right for the finals. We’d like to get him back the week before if we could, but we’ll see how that one goes,” Cleary said.
“The surgery went really well, he’s had that same surgery (before), came out of it this time feeling better straight away than what he did last time.
“Bizza’s a bit of a miracle man like that too.
“Hopefully, we’ll get him back not too far away.”
To’o was one of seven Panthers to feature in this year’s Origin series. Picture: NRL PhotosSource:The Daily Telegraph
Formidable front-row forward James Fisher-Harris is also nearing his return to the side.
The Panthers gave Fisher-Harris permission to leave their Sunshine Coast bubble to attend the birth of his child in Sydney.
The New Zealand international representative has re-entered the Sunshine State and is completing 14 days of hotel quarantine. Fisher-Harris will be released this Sunday, but Cleary said he was “unlikely” to feature in round 23.
“He’s been training as best he can inside his little quarantine room, set up reasonably well there,” the coach said.
“He gets out on Sunday. He and his young family are all doing well, so we’ll just have to assess Fish when he gets out as to what sort of state he’s in in terms of being able to play. “It’ll be good to have him back.”
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Friday’s clash between the Dragons and Panthers will be the first time Anthony Griffin coaches against the Panthers since Penrith sacked him four weeks out from the 2018 finals series.
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