NRL legend Cameron Smith believes Nathan Cleary’s lengthy suspension leading to the final will be “a blessing in disguise” for the Panthers.
Cleary turned Penrith’s season upside down when he was ejected last Friday for a dangerous tackle on Eels playmaker Dylan Brown.
The New South Wales Origin star has been given a five-match suspension and will not return for the competition leaders before the final.
Five-eighth Jarome Luai is also set for a long stint on the sidelines after sustaining an MCL injury against the Sharks.
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Without the two experienced playmakers leading the team through the park, the Panthers will have to rely on some relatively inexperienced combinations until the finals.
Penrith has turned to Jaeman Salmon and Sean O’Sullivan for Saturday’s game against Canberra, with the Panthers currently six league points ahead of second place with five games remaining.
But Smith said the break for the duo could turn positive for the reigning NRL premieres.
“I think it could work in their favor,” Smith continued SEN’s The Captain’s Run on Thursday.
“I actually think they’re giving this football team a chance to play for a month or five weeks without Cleary in particular and Jerome Luai, their two main men, it’s their favorite guy on the attack. I actually think when they return, they are both fresh.
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“Nathan Cleary, he will have fresh legs, he will have a fresh mentality. He hasn’t had to get up for competitions for five weeks.
“You could see that as soon as he made that tackle, he knew he was going to let the team, the club and the fans down. He comes out in that final run and thinks, ‘I have to pay this football club and my fans back for it. missing five weeks’.
“This footy side can benefit so much from these two guys who are not there and guys like Api Koroisau and Isaah Yeo… they will now have to take more responsibility with the way the football team plays.
“I just think they’re going to be a stronger footy side again.”
Penrith has one hand on the small premiership just over a month away from the final, but they could lose that grip quickly with a few losses on the bounce.
The Cowboys are their closest rivals in the race for pole position, but the Sharks are also an opportunity – but are four games back and have a significantly worse points difference.
North Queensland will host the Panthers in the final round of the regular season, and while unlikely, it’s possible the two teams could clash with the small premiership at stake.
It could be a season that will be decisive for several weeks for the Panthers, who want to defend their NRL crown.
“Let’s say the top four don’t change, they’re up against Melbourne. If they finish first, they’ll face the Storm,” he added.
“The biggest difference this year is that they play their first game at home. They play at Penrith.
“Whereas last year and I know it was a neutral ground for the Sydney squads but they played against the Rabbitohs in Townsville and were beaten. They are another footy side at home.
“They’ve lost one game there in a thousand years.”
Parramatta is another squad that will be without a key player for most of their remaining regular season games.
Top playmaker Mitchell Moses has been ruled out with a finger injury and will be watching from the sidelines for at least a few weeks.
The Eels could potentially drop out of the top eight if they have a bad month, with the Raiders just four points behind them.
“(Moses) He leads the competition for try assists. He has 20 try assists, so now out with him, plus his goal kicks, so now they have to find someone to produce points for them.
“They’ll have to find points somewhere. Whether Gutho stands up a bit more, I think Jake Arthur will be playing in halves this week.
“These remaining five games are crucial.”