The Roar
The Roar


ANALYSIS: Panthers bulldoze Bulldogs as Cleary doesn't miss a beat in return for final stage of 'three-peat' mission

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23rd July, 2023

Everyone was expecting a one-sided match, and that’s exactly what we got. While it wasn’t as cutthroat as many predicted, the Penrith Panthers still put on a dominating performance to put away the struggling Canterbury Bulldogs, with a solid 44-18 win in front of their home crowd on Sunday.

Nathan Cleary was back after missing five games for Penrith with a hamstring injury and played like he hadn’t been gone a day. Having a hand in two tries, converting six from eight, and giving his side unrivalled guidance around the park.

“It was the perfect return for Cleary, he didn’t miss a beat,” said Fox League analyst Braith Anasta.

Cleary’s father and coach Ivan was a bit more critical of his son’s return.

“I thought he was a bit rusty, some of the stuff he did. It was just good to have the whole gang back together.”

Along with the return of Cleary, the premiers were boosted by Origin stars Isaah Yeo, Brian To’o, Stephen Crichton and Liam Martin after being rested last round.

But the premiers now have another injury concern, with Spencer Leniu not returning after halftime after suffering a suspected MCL injury.

As for the Bulldogs who are experiencing their own heartache with injured and sick players, it was always going to be a tough day out, and their mission was made even harder when their team list copped a hammering before kickoff. Viliame Kikau failed to be fit for his expected return, and speedster Josh Addo-Carr was ruled out with a hamstring injury. Skipper Reed Mahoney was named on the bench, with Kyle Flanagan moved from halfback to cover the hooking role.


Jake Averillo, who has been in top form in the number one jersey was named at halfback in place of Flanagan with Hayze Perham filling in out the back.

“I’m probably as proud of them this week as I have been for a long time,” said Bulldogs coach Cameron Ciraldo.

“The scoreline, I obviously don’t like letting in that many points, but the way the game started and the adversity we had there, I am really proud of how they hung in there and I thought we finished really strong.”

“Today was just about playing the guys that were available, there were about three or four players out there that shouldn’t have played. We had a bit of a flu going through……it was a pretty gutsy performance.”

“We had 15 players from our top squad unavailable today.”

The onslaught started early, with Tyrone Peachey collecting a Jarome Luai grubber and strolling over the try line in just the fourth minute. They struck again just minutes later, capitalising on great field possession after a Dogs error and Yeo crossing for the Panthers’ second try.


The four-pointers just kept coming, with Peachy and T’o both grabbing doubles and the Panthers racing out to a 28-0 lead by the 30-minute mark.

The visitors finally crossed through Paul Alamoti just before halftime and headed to the sheds trailing the premiers 28-6.

The points didn’t come as quickly in the second half, but the Panthers were well and truly in control. Crichton scored first against the club he will join in 2024, followed by Scott Sorensen and Luke Garner as the scoreboard read 44-6.

The Bulldogs put on a brave fight towards the end of the game to give their fans something to cheer about. Averillo helped the Bulldogs save face by getting to double digits, doing all the work to score his team’s second try of the day, while Jeral Skelton added his name to the scorecard with just minutes left on the clock.

But the day belonged to the premiers, who have their eyes firmly on the minor premiership and their third NRL crown in a row.

Mystery around Mahoney


Eyebrows were raised when the news broke on Sunday that Reed Mahoney had been dropped to the bench against the Panthers.

Bulldogs coach Ciraldo defended his skipper by explaining before the game that his Mahoney was unwell, and “probably shouldn’t be playing, but refuses not to.”

“That move of Mahoney into the middle … Ciraldo spoke to us before the game about him being well and probably shouldn’t have played,” said Michael Ennis on Fox League commentary. “But because he is the captain and just the sheer tenacity of the bloke, he wanted to play.

“Then he brings him on and puts him in the middle as a ball-playing 13 … which he just isn’t.”

Anasta also couldn’t understand the call. “They put him to the bench, but he’s still playing, and now he’s playing at lock. I’m confused.”

“If he’s sick, then he probably shouldn’t be playing,” replied Ennis.”And if he is that tenacious and wanted to be playing then you would imagine he should be coming into his preferred position at number nine, where he is one of the best in the game.

“Yes, he is a little out of form at the moment, but if he’s out of form then maybe he should be dropped. He hasn’t made any impact at 13, he looks out of sorts … he looks really uncomfortable out there.”


Ciraldo addressed the issue again after the game.

“Reed was crook all week and didn’t train with us, then the lack of numbers we just needed to find a ball-playing forward and Reed was happy to do that role,” said Ciraldo.

“We knew he’d only pump out minimal minutes but we just thought we’d put Reed in there and get his 30 minutes out.

“He probably shouldn’t have played but as a captain, he wanted to be out there with the boys.”

Webster has the last laugh


Sometimes it’s the ones that go under the radar that come out as winners on the other side.

While many were swooning over Ciraldo last season, expecting him to be the next big NRL coach after his appointment at Canterbury for this year, there was another Penrith assistant in Andrew Webster going virtually unnoticed by everyone.

Everyone except the Warriors.

Both are now in charge of their own clubs and are having polar opposite experiences. Ciraldo and his men are struggling in 16th place after their 13th loss on Sunday, while Webster and his Warriors are having a season to remember and loving life in the Top 4.

Ciraldo is doing all he can to avoid a spoon in his first year at the helm, while his former colleague is preparing for finals footy and is a huge chance to take out the Dally M Coach of the Year.

Ivan Cleary however isn’t too concerned for his former understudy.

“He’s doing a rebuild. I cut my teeth on that kind of stuff – it’s hard.


“I look back and think that can make you a better coach.

“He’ll be fine. That team that played today, that side won’t look like that in the next two years. They are in that phase where they are trying to find the players they want and how they want to play.

“He will be fine.”