It was the half-time check-up which sent the Rugby League world into a spin.
The Penrith Panthers were on the wrong end of the scoreline against the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs at ANZ Stadium when Nathan Cleary felt a slight knock on his knee, soon showing signs of pain as he lined up for a conversion attempt. Just minutes later, in the Panthers’ dressing sheds, it was learned to be much more serious than first thought – and could yet have representative repercussions.
Cleary, uncapped for the Brydens Lawyers NSW Blues but considered a serious contender for the No.7 jersey this year, has since been confirmed to have suffered a Grade Three Medial Ligament injury, ruling him out for the Panthers for between six and 10 weeks. Speaking on Fox League’s Super Saturday, Cleary’s mentor and State of Origin Adviser Greg Alexander was hopeful of a quicker recovery.
“It’s the worst you can have in a medial tear,” Alexander told the panel, “but he’s young and a quick healer – a good healer, Nathan – so I guess we’re hoping it’s only six weeks. Worst case scenario it’s 10 weeks and that’s a long time on the sideline.
“They didn’t even know that he’d hurt his knee until he kicked that second goal just before half-time, one of our trainers was out there with him and he rubbed his knee and he said ‘is that all right?’ He got it checked at half-time and our doc immediately ruled him out … the doc said ‘you’re a bigger chance to do your ACL with so much movement in the knee.’
“Nathan’s very good in his rehab, he’s had a couple of niggly injuries that he’s overcome very quickly,” Alexander added. “The fact that he’s a good healer and he’s someone that focusses on his rehab, you’d think that it would be closer to the six (weeks).
Six weeks out of action would give Cleary just three games to impress NSW coach Brad Fittler ahead of the Origin I team selection, while 10 weeks would almost certainly rule him out of the series opener at the MCG.
While Fittler has publicly stated he will not be picking a team until much closer to the series, it hasn’t stopped a wider discussion on social media. With 18 Origin appearances to his name and impressive early-season form, incumbent halfback Mitchell Pearce was suggested by many to retain his spot.
Pearce, however, was not the only suggestion. Some of the competition’s best five-eighths were also on the table, with the idea that an existing No.6 – potentially incumbent James Maloney – could shift to the halfback role.
Meanwhile, Penrith are left without one of their star playmakers for the time being – and they are big shoes to fill. Young half Tyrone May, who performed well in nine games at the top level last year, is currently recovering from the ACL injury, while Samoan international Jarome Luai has been performing strongly in the Intrust Super Premiership NSW. With two try-assists and one try in Saturday’s win over the Warriors, Luai is one option for Panthers head coach Anthony Griffin.
There are still more than 10 weeks until the opening game of the Holden State of Origin series, but it is not too early to secure your seat. Tickets for Game One at the MCG can be purchased here, while tickets for Game Two at ANZ Stadium can be purchased here.
The opinions expressed are those of the writer and social media users and are not reflective of the NSWRL or State of Origin selection process.