NRL 2022 round 12: Nathan Cleary targeted in the air by Cowboys

Nathan Cleary attempted to downplay the incident, but his father Ivan was not feeling so charitable after the Penrith star was targeted repeatedly on Friday night.

He’s almost been illegally wiped out by a fellow New South Welshman, and now Nathan Cleary is expecting nothing less when he faces Queensland in State of Origin I.

Cleary, along with coach and father, Ivan, were left far from impressed after the Penrith star was attacked after kicking on multiple occasions during their 22-0 shutout of North Queensland on Friday.

Cleary was unable to take Penrith’s final shot at goal as he hobbled around with a cork, presumably from a tackle by Jordan McLean around the legs while he was in the air following a midfield bomb, but is in no doubt for the Origin opener.

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Jordan McLean tackles Nathan Cleary in the air.
Jordan McLean tackles Nathan Cleary in the air.

It appeared a clear-cut penalty under the rules, but play was allowed to continue.

“I just thought the McLean one is usually a penalty,” Nathan said.

“Usually it doesn’t matter what happens, if you end up in a dangerous position it is a penalty. But I can’t complain about it too much.”

The Panthers could ask the NRL to further harden the laws to protect kickers after Nathan Cleary was targeted by the Cowboys.

“Our football department will have a look at it during the week and address it,” Fletcher said.

“If they think it needs to be taken further following deliberation with the coaches then it will be. I certainly think every kicker in the NRL deserves some protection.”

The Blues will be relying heavily on Cleary’s right boot on June 8 given he has the best and most varied kicking game in the NRL.

Just as he did last year, the 24-year-old leads the league in average kicks (17.45) and kick metres (486) per game so far this season.

But he knows he won’t be afforded as much time and space in the Origin cauldron.

Still showing Nathan Cleary being tackled as he kicks.
Still showing Nathan Cleary being tackled as he kicks.

Christian Welch is usually tasked with getting in Cleary’s face, but the Maroons prop will miss the series through injury.

That just opens the door for someone else to try to rattle his cage, with the likes of Felise Kaufusi, and former teammate Kurt Capewell, a chance of targeting Cleary.

“That’s the beast Origin is. It’s the hardest stage to play on,” Nathan said.

“You just don’t get a lot of time. It’s something I look forward to. It’s a great challenge and something I have to try and combat.

“Origin is a beast in itself and there’s not too many tic-tac penalties in that. I am fine with that. I look forward to the challenge every time I play it.”

Ivan was stunned his side didn’t get a couple of penalties when his star halfback was put in dangerous positions.

“I had a view that kick pressure has changed again tonight because we never ever get kick pressure penalties. He was tackled multiple times tonight late and in the air. Maybe it’s changed,” Ivan said.

BLUES MAY PAY HIGH PRICE FOR PENRITH WIN

Penrith’s blue brigade all came through unscathed as the Panthers snapped North Queensland’s six-game winning streak with a comfortable 22-0 win at home.

This was supposed to be one of Penrith’s toughest challenges against one of the hottest teams in the league, but the understrength Cowboys were no match for the defending premiers who head into the State of Origin period with a four-point buffer after an 11-1 start to the year.

“This is our first go at being premiers,” Panthers coach Ivan Cleary said.

“Everyone tells you that everyone gets up when they play you, and that’s exactly what’s happened from the very first game. I just think our boys have handled that so well.”

As has been the norm throughout 2022, Cleary’s men dominated from the outset with a whopping 65 per cent possession in the first half to help them jump out to a 16-0 lead.

Isaah Yeo was outstanding for the Panthers. Picture: Matt Blyth/Getty Images
Isaah Yeo was outstanding for the Panthers. Picture: Matt Blyth/Getty Images

The Cowboys defended stoically but dropped the ball far too often against a side that gives you very few chances at the best of times.

Blues coach Brad Fittler would have been watching the game with his fingers crossed given the shocking run of injuries in recent weeks, but he can breathe easy after his guns got through with a clean bill of health.

Isaah Yeo was at brilliant as ever in the middle and was rewarded with the opening try, Nathan Cleary nailed a 40/20 and Brian To’o crossed for his first try of the season in a perfect hitout ahead of the series opener.

SOUTHERN DISCOMFORT

North Queensland’s first trip to Sydney this season didn’t go to plan, but they shouldn’t lose too many admirers after a gutsy defensive display against the best in the business.

Todd Payten’s side has built their game on defence after they leaked points last year, and that grittiness without the ball was on show in the golden west and has the coach confident the Cowboys can beat Penrith later in the year.

“We’ll walk away knowing we can beat them if we get our fair share of possession,” he said.

“There were periods in the first half where I thought we really worried them with the ball but we couldn’t find the patience or the last pass.”

Jarome Luai celebrates a try with his teammates. Picture: Matt Blyth/Getty Images
Jarome Luai celebrates a try with his teammates. Picture: Matt Blyth/Getty Images

Most teams would have conceded 50 points on Friday against an attack that asks questions with every play, but the Cowboys held firm, denying the Panthers three certain tries in the first half with their desperate defence that was forced to make 28 tackles in a row.

Reuben Cotter did his Origin hopes no harm with a staggering 60 tackles in 65 minutes and must be on the cusp of a Queensland debut on June 8.

CENTRES OF ATTENTION

Queensland had an early win with Valentine Holmes getting one over likely Blues counterpart Stephen Crichton on Friday night.

Holmes set the tone early with a line break from the kick-off and led all players with 133 metres and two clean busts in the first half, but he did spill the ball with the line wide open when the Cowboys desperately needed a try after the break.

While Holmes is a certainty for the series opener, Crichton’s spot isn’t confirmed even though most good judges expect him to be there with Latrell Mitchell and Tom Trbojevic both injured.

The 2021 Grand Final hero came off for an HIA after 18 minutes after his head collected Murray Taulagi’s hip in a tackle, but he was able to return.

Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow is crunched by the Panthers’ defence. Picture: Matt Blyth/Getty Images
Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow is crunched by the Panthers’ defence. Picture: Matt Blyth/Getty Images

HAPPY API

He’s the forgotten man in Origin conversations, but Api Koroisau reminded Fittler that he should still be on the radar for Game One.

The Panthers hooker played in the final game of the 2021 series and scored a try in the loss, but he appears to be well down in the pecking order with Nicho Hynes and Jack Wighton the leading contenders for the bench utility role.

But Koroisau is one of the best rakes in the comp and his combination with Penrith’s spine members who will all feature for the Blues cannot be ignored. You only had to look at Penrith’s first try on Friday when he set Yeo up to see his worth.

TOUCH AND NO

Izack Tago will spend the week practising his put downs after he bombed a certain four-pointer in the first half.

The young centre simply had to put the ball down in plenty of space but took too long and slid into touch just before he grounded the Steeden.

He also played a part in Viliame Kikau’s no try a bit earlier, although the back-rower still managed a moment of magic when he belted Chad Townsend halfway back to Townsville with a huge hit that could be felt in the stands.

Kikau was placed on report for two separate tackles though was not charged by the match review committee.

Nathan Cleary steered the Panthers to another big win. Picture: Matt Blyth/Getty Images
Nathan Cleary steered the Panthers to another big win. Picture: Matt Blyth/Getty Images

Panthers’ plan to handle Origin acid test

-Nick Walshaw

Panthers star Jarome Luai says the NRL premiers are ready for the greatest test of their 2022 title defence — the State of Origin period.

TAB favourites for the NRL title, Penrith are about to begin an arduous two months that has seen no less than eight players linked to Brad Fittler’s NSW Origin side.

Apart from Blues halves Luai and Nathan Cleary, other Panthers on the shortlist to face Queensland include Isaah Yeo, Liam Martin, Brian To’o and Stephen Crichton. Elsewhere, Moses Leota and Apisai Koroisau are also in the running to be part of extended squads.

While the Panthers have been blessed with a favourable run through the Origin period — taking on only one other top eight team in the Roosters — there is no denying the toll, both physically and mentally, previous series have taken on some of the code’s biggest names.

Jarome Luai will be among a strong contingent of Panthers players in the NSW Origin team. Picture: Richard Dobson
Jarome Luai will be among a strong contingent of Panthers players in the NSW Origin team. Picture: Richard Dobson

Before heading into Blues Camp, the reigning premiers ended the Cowboys’ six-game winning streak with a convincing win at BlueBet Stadium.

The Panthers No. 6 stressed his club was well prepared to handle the seven weeks ahead, even with so many players set to be selected for the Blues.

Luai revealed that, under coach Ivan Cleary, the reigning premiers had developed a mantra where consistency, no matter the obstacles, was key.

“Every game is important for us and that doesn’t change (through Origin),” Luai said.

“It’s important not only as a team, but as a club – our culture, our reputation, showing our fans that we’re a reliable team that is going to turn up every week.

“It just means that some more of our guys will get the chance to play NRL.

“And maybe some debutants too.

“I know if that does happen I’ll be really happy for them.”

After playing North Queensland, the Panthers face Canterbury at home without their Origin stars and, after that, four days on from the interstate opener, take on Newcastle away. Then it’s the Warriors away, the Roosters at home, a bye, and finally Wests Tigers in Round 18.

“And there’s an amazing feeling in the group at the moment,” Luai said. “We’re loving our footy and to be in contention for Origin that’s a bonus. And a real privilege.”

The Panthers are firm favourites to win back-to-back premierships. Picture: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images
The Panthers are firm favourites to win back-to-back premierships. Picture: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

Rugby league reality check on way for 2022’s luckiest team

-Dean Ritchie

You can run, but you can’t hide.

The side that has shell-shocked this year’s NRL – North Queensland – has roared into third place on the competition ladder by quietly avoiding the anxiety and difficulty of playing in the home of rugby league – Sydney.

North Queensland have played six games in Townsville this season, two in Brisbane and one each in Redcliffe, Canberra and Darwin.

It means North Queensland hasn’t travelled to Sydney since a round 14 against Manly at 4 Pines Park last year — and has done so only twice since round 5 of 2021 — given a chunk of last year’s premiership was relocated to Queensland.

Well, the party is now over.

And what a way to welcome the far north Queenslanders back to the Harbour City – facing the rampaging Panthers at a cold, wet and sold-out BlueBet Stadium on Friday night.

Cowboys coach Todd Payten described playing the Panthers in Sydney’s west as “daunting.”

Cowboys coach Todd Payten isn’t complaining about the draw. Picture: Ian Hitchcock/Getty
Cowboys coach Todd Payten isn’t complaining about the draw. Picture: Ian Hitchcock/Getty

“The less travel we have to do, the better. We’re not complaining at all,” Payten said. “The draw has been favourable to us at the start of this season but we had a more difficult draw last year so it’s swings and roundabouts.

“We have been the most-travelled team in the comp for the last couple of years. We have handled that better this year and have streamlined the process as best as we can.

“With Penrith going as well as they are, it’s a daunting trip out there. It’s a tough trip and their recent run of form makes it even more challenging.”

Asked whether Penrith was the toughest road trip in rugby league, Payten said: “At the moment? Yeah, absolutely. For us, it’s Penrith, Canberra and Melbourne. But we’re looking forward to coming to Sydney. It will be good to catch up with a few friends.”

It is astonishing to consider the NRL season is nearly its halfway point and North Queensland has avoided Sydney. In fact, the Cowboys will only play two of their first 15 games this season in Sydney.

The Cowboys only have five regular-season games scheduled in Sydney all season, a quirk in the draw due mainly to an NRL desire for more Sydney derbies.

North Queensland play at Gold Coast and Townsville over the next fortnight before returning to Sydney for a match against Manly at 4 Pines Park.

Jeremiah Nanai and the Cowboys have been the surprise packet of the season. Picture: Ian Hitchcock/Getty
Jeremiah Nanai and the Cowboys have been the surprise packet of the season. Picture: Ian Hitchcock/Getty

The Cowboys will start a stretch of Sydney games later this season, including a round 20 game against the Dragons at Kogarah; round 22 versus the Roosters at the SCG; round 24 against Souths at Accor Stadium.

Cowboys officials believe the Roosters match could be moved to the Central Coast.

And North Queensland will avoid another trip to Sydney after Canterbury took their round 21 home game to Bundaberg.

Penrith, having lost just one game this season, will start the game as hot $1.26 favourites with North Queensland the $3.90 outsiders, according to TAB.

“It will be a massive game,” said Panthers forward Viliame Kikau. “The Cowboys are going really well and it’s going to be a massive task for us again.

“We have played really big teams in the last three weeks (Roosters, Storm, Parramatta) and here’s another one for us.”

Originally published as NRL 2022 round 12: Nathan Cleary targeted in the air by Cowboys

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