Panthers’ premiership hopes have received a massive boost with halfback Nathan Cleary avoiding season-ending surgey to his shoulder.
Cleary visited a specialiston Wednesday morning and was given the green light to work with the Panthers medical team for the next four to six weeks to rehabilitate the shoulder rather than go under the knife.
He is targeting a return to action anywhere between Round 20 and 22.
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Cleary dislocated his shoulder in the 10th minute of the Blues’ Origin series-clinching 26-0 win over Queensland last Sunday night, but heroically finished the game.
There were fears Cleary would require surgery that would have rubbed him out for the rest of the season, ending his hopes of making amends for last year’s grand final loss to the Storm.
However the Panthers consulted a specialist in a bid to delay surgery until after the season and have chosen to rehab the shoulder over the next six weeks.
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However Cleary’s hopes of lifting the Origin Shield with his teammates as a player on July 14 are now over and he will have to be content with celebrating in street clothes as he did in 2019 when Mitchell Pearce came in for the final game at halfback.
Eels playmaker Mitchell Moses is believed to be the frontrunner for the NSW No.7 jersey, but Brad Fittler will wait to see the Round 16 fixtures before making a call.
Other options include promoting Jack Wighton to partner Luai in the halves with Cody Walker joining the bench as the utility.
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At club level the Panthers have switched Luai to halfback with Matt Burton moved from centre to partner him in the halves.
Penrith also have Tyrone May who can play in the halves should further injuries strike.
However Cleary’s importance to the side can’t be underestimated with Penrith 1-2 this season without him, albeit with a number of Origin stars also missing for two of those games.
Cleary is the focal point of the side’s attack and does most of the kicking in general play as well as being clinical from the tee.
The Panthers currently sit second behind the Storm with nine games remaining and while they have one bye while Cleary is out, they still face a tough battle to maintain their place in the top two and even the top four.
While the Panthers have one of the best two or three rosters in the competition, losing their best player is bound to have an effect on any club, especially given the position he plays and how crucial he is to his side’s game plan.