Cleary ready for Panthers' NRL finals push

Nathan Cleary is set to return for Penrith after hurting an ankle injury during State of Origin II.
Nathan Cleary is set to return for Penrith after hurting an ankle injury during State of Origin II.

He was criticised after State of Origin I, picked up an ankle injury for game two, and was heartbreakingly ruled out of NSW's triumphant decider.

But a fit and fresh Nathan Cleary has declared himself ready to use his latest Origin experience to help Penrith's pursuit of a finals spot when they host St George Illawarra on Friday night.

"It was a blessing in disguise that Jimmy (James Maloney) was able to back up last week," Cleary said on Wednesday.

"I was not 100 per cent on where I wanted to be last week. So I got it right this week, worked hard and I'm ready to go."

Despite failing to play in the match, Cleary was still beaming over the Blues dramatic victory that sealed a second straight series win over Queensland.

His replacement, much-maligned halfback Mitchell Pearce, went out of his way to bring Cleary onto the field post-game to share in the celebrations.

"That was a really cool moment. Other than NSW winning the game, obviously that made my night," Cleary said.

"It was the first time properly I met Mitch. Obviously he was on a massive high, winning his first State of Origin series and playing so well.

"So for him to think about me and bring me in amongst the team, that was pretty cool and says a lot about him."

Asked if he would have thrown the cutout pass Pearce flung that set up the game-winning try for James Tedesco, Cleary admitted: "I don't know, maybe not.

"It was a good thing Mitch was out there."

Cleary's return is a huge boost for a Panthers side that are in the top eight for the first time this season after winning six on the bounce.

The playmaker conceded Penrith's attack had yet to click during their winning streak.

"The main thing is we've tightened up our defence which is why we've been winning these games," he said.

"That's something we were missing at the start of the year. I think the polish in attack can come with a bit more combinations and playing more together."

Penrith face a St George Illawarra outfit floundering in 14th spot after losing eight of their past 10 matches, and one which has curiously opted to rest star No.7 Ben Hunt.

Australian Associated Press