NRL fans are questioning Nathan Cleary's credentials after the Panthers were all at sea without Dylan Edwards and Jarome Luai on Thursday night against the Eels. Ivan Cleary opted to rest fullback Edwards with just two weeks until the NRL finals, before Luai suffered what could be a season-ending shoulder injury.
The Panthers looked a completely different team to the one that was won back-to-back premierships, with Cleary struggling to have an impact as the Eels caused a huge boilover. Clint Gutherson produced a masterful display as the Eels raced in four tries in the first half to leave the reigning premiers shell-shocked.
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The Panthers hadn't conceded more than two tries all year in the first half, and it didn't get much better in the second. The 32-18 scoreline marked Penrith's biggest loss since round 25 last season - when they rested almost their entire starting side - and comes worryingly close to the finals.
Penrith missed Edwards' organisation at the back, while the Eels targeted the Panthers' right edge - which was missing Stephen Crichton who deputised for Edwards at fullback. Luai's injury only compounded matters for the Panthers, with a dislocated shoulder meaning he is in extreme doubt for the entire finals series.
In the aftermath of the shock loss for the Panthers, which could see the Broncos swoop in and win the minor premiership, fans were questioning who the most valuable player at Penrith actually is. While many would argue Cleary is the main man, many were pointing out how bad the reigning premiers looked without Edwards.
When Cleary missed six weeks earlier in the season with a hamstring injury, the Panthers didn't miss a beat. But in one game without Edwards they looked completely lost against a team who aren't even going to make the finals.
To be fair, the Panthers also rested winger Sunia Turuva, and were once again without the injured trio of Izack Tago, Scott Sorensen and Mitch Kenny. Cleary did manage to score a try and provide an assist when the game was already lost, with fans questioning the real value of the talismanic halfback.
One fan wrote on Twitter: "Has a player's perceived contract value gone up more without playing than Dylan Edwards has tonight. Penrith look horrible without him." Another wrote: "Jarome Luai is in the top 2 players at Penrith (together with Edwards) who we can least afford to miss. Both are almost irreplaceable in my books. Really hoping it’s not too serious."
While a third commented: "Nathan Cleary misses some games - Panthers don't miss a beat. Dylan Edwards rested - Panthers down 18-4 to the Eels. Ask questions."
Jarome Luai is in the top 2 players at Penrith (together with Edwards) who we can least afford to miss. Both are almost irreplaceable in my books. Really hoping it’s not too serious
— Nat Hanrahan (@nat_sinclair93) August 24, 2023
Nathan Cleary misses some games - Panthers don't miss a beat
Dylan Edwards rested - Panthers down 18-4 to the Eels
— carlosthedwarf? (@carlosthedwarf_) August 24, 2023
Cleary on his own tonight
And more importantly No Api
Situations like these is where he needs to step up#NRLPanthersEels
— Ethan (@ethxn26) August 24, 2023
Yet more proof that Edwards > Teddy.
Cleary is an absolute fraud without Edwards making him look good
— Elon Musk Sticks (@Mario_Seags) August 24, 2023
Has a players perceived contract value gone up more without playing than Dylan Edwards has tonight.
Penrith look horrible without him. #NRLPanthersEels
— Dwayne Nicholls (@PaintballWagga) August 24, 2023
A lot of talk about cleary and luai… but Penrith without edwards are average
— Luke Shepherd (@lukeshepherd87) August 24, 2023
— Suge Nate (@incognateo) August 24, 2023
it would be a bit ironic if penriths season falls apart because they lost luai after all the times theyve coped without cleary #NRLPanthersEels
— abby (@lowkeyabby) August 24, 2023
This just proves how important Dylan Edwards is they are not the same side without him
— Charlie 🇳🇿 (@CharlieEfc17) August 24, 2023
Nathan Cleary lashes 'embarrassing' Panthers performance
Speaking after the game, Cleary didn't mince his words when assessing the Panthers' performance. "It's pretty embarrassing to be honest," he told ABC Sport. "I can't remember the last time we put in a performance like that."
Ivan Cleary said Luai's shoulder popped back into place in the sheds and there are hopes it's not too series. But the coach admitted there's a huge chance he might not play again this year.
Absolutely," he said. "It's a decent injury but (medical staff) are fairly positive about the potential of it Really, we're not going to know until he gets scans.
"(It is disappointing) on both fronts, on the team front and for 'Romey' personally. But that's the way it goes sometimes. There's often lot of injuries at this time of year in and around finals."
The coach admitted the loss was "sort of coming a bit." He added: "We'd still been playing OK but there's parts of our game that haven't been up to scratch. We got found out tonight."
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