NRL legend Cameron Smith believes Nathan Cleary’s lengthy ban leading into finals will provide “a blessing in disguise” for the Panthers.
Cleary flipped Penrith’s season on its head when he was sent off for a dangerous lifting tackle on Eels playmaker Dylan Brown last Friday.
The New South Wales Origin star copped a five-match suspension and won’t return for the competition leaders before the finals.
Five-eighth Jarome Luai is also out set for a lengthy stint on the sidelines, after suffering an MCL injury against the Sharks.
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Without the two experienced playmakers leading the team around the park, the Panthers will have to rely on some relatively inexperienced combinations until the finals.
Penrith have turned Jaeman Salmon and Sean O’Sullivan for Saturday’s clash with Canberra, with the Panthers currently six competition points clear of second with five games to play.
But Smith said the break for the duo can become a positive for the reigning NRL premiers.
“I think it can work in their favour,” Smith said on SEN’s The Captain’s Run on Thursday.
“I actually think that giving this football side an opportunity side to play a month or five weeks without Cleary in particular and Jerome Luai, their two main men, it’s their go-to men in attack, I actually think when they return they’ll both be fresh.
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“Nathan Cleary, he’s going to have fresh legs, he’s going to be fresh mentality. He hasn’t had to get up for games for five weeks.
“You could see as soon as he made that tackle he knew he’d let the team down, and the club and the fans. He’s going to come out in that final series and think ‘I’ve got to repay this footy club and my fans for missing five weeks’.
“This footy side can benefit so much from these two guys not being there and guys like Api Koroisau and Isaah Yeo… they’re going to have to shoulder more responsibility now with the way the football team plays.
“I just think they’re going to be a stronger footy side again.”
Penrith have one hand on the minor premiership just over a month out from finals, but they could quickly lose that grip with a couple of losses on the bounce.
The Cowboys are their closest rivals in the race for pole position, but the Sharks are also an outside chance – but are four games back and they have a significantly worse points difference.
North Queensland host the Panthers in the final round of the regular season, and although it’s unlikely, it’s possible that the two teams clash with the minor premiership on the line.
It’s potentially a season defining a few weeks for the Panthers, who are looking to defend their NRL crown.
“Let’s just say the top four doesn’t change, they take on Melbourne. If they finish first, they’ll be taking on the Storm,” he added.
“The biggest difference this year is they’ll play their first game at home. They’ll be playing at Penrith.
“Whereas last year and I know it was a neutral ground for the Sydney sides, but they played the Rabbitohs up in Townsville and got beaten. They’re a different footy side at home.
“They’ve lost one game there in a thousand years.”
Parramatta are another side who will be without a key player for a majority of their remaining regular season games.
Star playmaker Mitchell Moses has been ruled out with a finger injury, and will spend at least a couple of weeks watching on from the sidelines.
The Eels could potentially drop out of the top eight if they have a bad month, with the Raiders just four-point behind them.
“(Moses) He’s leading the competition for try assists. He’s got 20 try assists, so now with him out, plus his goal kicking, so now they need to find someone to produce points for them.
“They’re going to have to find some points somewhere. Whether Gutho stands up a little bit more, I think Jake Arthur may be playing in the halves this week.
“These remaining five games are crucial.”