NSW hopefuls Nathan Cleary and James Maloney have combined to help steer Penrith to a dominating 28-2 victory over the St George Illawarra Dragons in the top of the table clash at Panthers Stadium on Saturday night.
Brad Fittler was in the crowd as more than 10 players chased Origin selection on Monday and the NSW coach would have liked what he saw early from the both sets of forward packs with some heavy hitting.
Dragons pair Jack de Belin and Tyson Frizell were men on a mission early, while opposite number Reagan Campbell-Gillard played the entire opening 40 minutes in the tense encounter.
But a hip injury late in the clash to de Belin soured an otherwise clean night of injuries for the Blues.
However Queensland coach Kevin Walters, who was in the commentary box, had reason to be concerned as he watched Ben Hunt hobble around the paddock in the first half with a corked quad.
Hunt insists cork won't keep him out of Origin I
The likely Maroons halfback in waiting returned following the break but lasted just five minutes before leaving the field as the Dragons struggled with any cohesion in attack without their playmaker.
The Panthers now share top spot on the ladder with St George Illawarra after 12 rounds, with both sides going into a bye next week.
The game lived up to its hype with the defensive display matched by both sets of halves earning repeat sets for their respective sides in the opening 20 minutes, but Penrith's overall line speed and effort proved too good against a scrappy Dragons outfit in the end.
Match: Panthers v Dragons
Round 12 -
Venue: Panthers Stadium
The nil-all scoreline was finally broken in the 23rd minute with a penalty goal – Maloney retaining the kicking duties ahead of Cleary.
A simple carry across field from Christian Crichton – who had barely been spotted in the opening half – caught the Dragons napping down the left edge with the Bulldogs-bound winger finding Tyrone Peachey unmarked for a 50-metre dart down field.
The Panthers extended their lead to 8-0 the following play with Cleary cutting back off the right foot to split through Cameron McInnes and carry Matt Dufty over the line.
Cleary slices through Dragons defence
Makeshift centre Peachey held his own against Origin candidate Euan Aitken, who was solid with limited opportunities out wide.
In a show of respect to the Panthers' defence, St George Illawarra opted for two points after half-time with Maloney penalised for taking out a runner from a Gareth Widdop kick.
Penrith regained their eight-point lead with Jeremy Latimore penalised for being offside in the 50th minute directly in front.
Penrith's energy grew as the second half went on with Maloney popping his nose through the line before finding Isaah Yeo in support for another line-break assist. Some quick passing the following play between Corey Harawira-Naera and Dean Whare led to Crichton getting space out wide, and the winger carried three defenders over the tryline.
It would be a dream: Campbell Gillard
Maloney slotted the sideline conversion for a 16-2 lead.
Penrith grew another leg as the Dragons attack failed to ask questions.
The match was sealed when a barnstorming Viliame Kikau powered his way over the line carrying four defenders, before a crafty Wayde Egan kick delivered Campbell-Gillard a try on the siren.
News & Notes: It was the first time since round 14 last season that the Dragons did not score a try in a game, and the first time the Dragons have failed to make a line break in a game since 2014... Penrith and St George Illawarra are not just level on competition points at the top of the Telstra Premiership ladder, they also both have a +109 points differential... Dragons stars Ben Hunt (corked quad) and Jack de Belin (hip) now in doubt for Origin selection... Crowd: 21,565.