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Immortals in awe of Cleary’s five-star return to vanquish Eels as May cops ban

Current and future Immortals were in awe after a tale of two halfbacks at Penrith on Friday night with Nathan Cleary delivering a five-star performance in his return from a five-game ban while Mitchell Moses was left seeing stars after a tackle went wrong.

Cleary was all class as the Panthers moved to within 80 minutes of a third straight Grand Final with a 27-8 triumph over Parramatta at a sold-out BlueBet Stadium.

“It was a pleasure to be here tonight to watch his performance,” enthused an old halfback who knows a thing or two about dominating finals matches, Andrew Johns on Nine commentary.

Future Immortal Johnathan Thurston added: “I’ve just sat back and watched the masterclass of Nathan Cleary – five weeks out of the game and comes back and produces probably the performance of the year. Unbelievable.”

Cleary said he was eager to repay his team after spending five rounds out due to a spear tackle in their Round 20 loss to the Eels.

“The best place to be in the world right now,” he told Nine straight after full-time. “I felt like I l let a lot of people down after that last Parra game we had. I had a fair bit of time to dwell on it but I just wanted to use that time to get better and when I was back I wanted to be a better player for the team to repay the favour.”

Penrith coach Ivan Cleary was suitably impressed with his son’s performance: “If he hasn’t played for a while he comes back well from a spell so I was hoping that was going to happen. The way he was training and just the way he looked, I thought he’d go all right.

“He practises whether he’s playing or not, since he was two, since he could stand up he’s carried a footy around.”

Moses was not far behind his fellow No.7 for three quarters of the match but when his night ended early after coming off second best trying to tackle Panthers forward Viliame Kikau, he played no further part in the game.

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While the premiers are safely through to a Preliminary Final, the loss means the Eels will next weekend face a sudden-death Semi-Final against Canberra after they won Saturday night’s clash with the Storm.

“We’re disappointed but we’ve got to move on real quickly to next week,” said Parra coach Brad Arthur. “At 8-7 or whatever it was with 30 minutes to go we just gifted them field position. We were first to break really because we made a couple of red-zone errors.”

Arthur said Moses seemed to be OK in the sheds and was hopeful he would be right to go next weekend.

The Eels gained the early ascendancy via a couple of well-placed Moses kicks and then threw it all away when Junior Paulo knocked on in a tackle and then wasted the captain’s challenge on a pointless review. 

Penrith nearly made them pay a minute later when Stephen Crichton crossed out wide but Maika Sivo and Dylan Brown managed to hold him up. 

Taylan May was controversially allowed to play during the week when his two-game ban for an assault was delayed by the ARL Commission for an assault charge last year. 

After a high shot on Will Penisini in the 12th minute, referee Gerard Sutton did not hesitate to send May to the sin bin after a slight delay while the bunker checked the contact. He was charged with grade-two contact on Saturday morning and has accepted a ban of one match so he will miss the Preliminary Final.

PENRITH, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 09: Nathan Cleary of the Panthers is tackled during the NRL Qualifying Final match between the Penrith Panthers and the Parramatta Eels at BlueBet Stadium on September 09, 2022 in Penrith, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Penrith drew first blood despite being a man down when Waqa Blake fumbled a sky-scraping Cleary bomb and the ball was spun wide to Brian To’o for a 6-0 lead. 

May made another blunder upon his return, coughing up the ball in a crunching tackle from Reed Mahoney and Ryan Matterson, and from the ensuing set, Oregon Kaufusi crashed through the defence and under the crossbar for a 6-6 square-up. 

Such was the superb standard of the defence that Moses tried to pot a field goal a few minutes before halftime to break the deadlock. 

PENRITH, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 09: Brian To'o of the Panthers celebrates with team mates after scoring a try during the NRL Qualifying Final match between the Penrith Panthers and the Parramatta Eels at BlueBet Stadium on September 09, 2022 in Penrith, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

He missed but the Panthers worked the ball upfield and Cleary nailed a one-pointer of his own. 

“I think it’s a great option,” said Johns on Nine commentary. 

Cleary had a chance to put six more points on the board four minutes after the break when the Eels spilt another one of his high kicks but he knocked the ball on while trying to scoop rather than dive on the slippery ball in the in-goal area. 

PENRITH, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 09: Clinton Gutherson of the Eels makes a break during the NRL Qualifying Final match between the Penrith Panthers and the Parramatta Eels at BlueBet Stadium on September 09, 2022 in Penrith, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The Eels edged ahead by a point soon after when a Spencer Leniu high shot on Isaiah Papali’i gifted Moses an easy penalty goal. Leniu was charged with a careess high tackle offence on Saturday and accepted a $750 fine with an early guilty plea.

Blake’s unhappy night continued when he botched another Cleary bomb defusal and To’o again was the beneficiary, beating three defenders for Penrith to regain the lead at 13-8.

Arthur said “we can’t be blaming Waqa” for the second-half collapse and indicated they would pressure Cleary’s kicks much harder if they come up against him again in the Grand Final.

The Eels’ hopes nosedived just before the mid point of the second half when Moses got his head in the wrong position trying to bring down Kikau and was replaced by Jake Arthur after showing category-one concussion symptoms.

Cleary then extended the margin to 11 when he laid on a try for Dylan Edwards with a clever kick and the halfback all but sealed Penrith’s passage to the Preliminary Final in the 63th minute when he jinked and flicked for James Fisher-Harris to make it 25-8.

After scoring two tries, To’o saved another when his bootlace tackle on Sivo was finished off by Edwards in the corner. 

May’s unhappy first playoff outing ended seven minutes from full-time when he limped off with a hamstring injury and the coach said in the post-match presser that he may struggle to get back on the field too soon irrespective of his ban.

Fittingly, Cleary finished the scoring, booting a late penalty goal to chew up some clock and finalise a 19-point triumph.

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