Nathan Cleary makes successful NRL return as Penrith Panthers top Wests Tigers
Nathan Cleary makes a hit-up for the Panthers in his return from injury. (AAP: Craig Golding)
Penrith star Nathan Cleary has made a triumphant NRL return from injury after helping steer the Panthers to a 16-2 win over the Wests Tigers on Thursday night.
Cleary had missed the past seven matches with a knee injury but set up a first-half try and broke three tackles in a strong performance against his father’s Tigers side.
He has now won both contests against father Ivan in the NRL but, more importantly, took a step towards a possible New South Wales debut two weeks before teams for State of Origin I are selected.
The half-back combined well with veteran playmaker James Maloney in a dominant first half at Panthers Stadium, where the hosts enjoyed triple the amount of plays inside the opposition 20-metre zone.
And while Penrith was unable to covert its dominance into points, it was largely untroubled in defence as the Tigers were held try-less for the first time in a year.
The win in front of a crowd of 15,081 lifts the Panthers to 16 points but below top-placed St George Illawarra on points differential.
For the Tigers, their disappointing result is their fourth defeat in five matches and the early-season surprise packets are now in danger of slipping out of the top eight for the first time in 2018.
Both teams traded early penalties when Panthers forward Trent Merrin was marched for repeated team infringements in the 22nd minute, however, his exit only sparked Penrith into an attacking frenzy.
Cleary set up Tyrone Peachey with a well-timed grubber not long after, before Maloney followed it up with a two-man cut out for an acrobatic finish by Tyrone Phillips and a two-try lead at half-time.
The Panthers had numerous opportunities to extend their advantage in a controlled second half, which included Tigers forward Alex Twal being sin-binned for repeated team penalties.
Viliame Kikau, Christian Crichton and Phillips all appeared set to score but were denied by a valiant Tigers defence on each occasion, before the Panthers held on for their sixth win in eight matches.