Penrith looked a reborn team with halfback Nathan Cleary back at the helm, easily accounting for the Dragons 34-16 at Suncorp Stadium on Friday evening.
Cleary showed absolutely no ill-effects from his right shoulder injury, defending strongly without missing a tackle all night and showing his accustomed slick passing game to set up one try and play a role in several more in what was Penrith’s best performance since Cleary’s injury in Origin II.
His coach and father Ivan gave him a four-minute early mark with the game in the bag but it was 76 minutes of quality to that point.
"The shoulder's actually really good," Cleary said after the game.
"I made a few tackles early on with it that gave me a bit of confidence and from there I was pretty much in the game, I wasn't really thinking about my shoulder.
Match: Dragons v Panthers
Round 22 -
Venue: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
"In terms of my performance it was definitely rusty, a few things to work on, I wasn't overly happy with it but very grateful to be back and just happy to be out there."
Ivan admitted it was a "relief" that Nathan came through unscathed but added they wouldn't have put him in if they weren't confident he was ready.
Cleary snr also praised the improved performance of his team.
"When you have an elite halfback, there's not many around, it makes a big difference to how your team functions and how everyone connects and the chemistry of the team," he said.
"Nat and Jarome [Luai] in particular have a great combination, it's not just how Nathan comes in it's how that works together ... There were some good things today but there's still lots to work on."
Matt Burton was shuffled back to the centres but produced a game not far short of his match-winning effort a week prior, using his running game to devastating effect to set up one try and score another to break the game open midway through the second half.
The Dragons, despite having far superior numbers in terms of completions and possession for most of the game, still came up with critical errors at the wrong times and asked few questions of the Penrith defence despite having ample opportunity to do so.
The only real bright spot for Red V fans was a sensational late-game cameo from Junior Amone, who was injected into the halves for the final quarter of the match and had one try, one try assist and very nearly a third try involvement in the final minute.
Penrith did their best to make life easy for the Dragons in the opening quarter of the contest, completing just two of their first seven sets and helping the Dragons to a 75 per cent possession count in the opening 20 minutes.
Cleary forces a mistake from Bird and Burton ends up with a four-pointer
In that period the Dragons were tackled 21 times in the opposition half compared to one for Penrith and had seven more completed sets.
However, it was Penrith who scored first after doing a mountain of defence on their own line, with a frustrated Corey Norman firing a long ball that was never on with Brent Naden pushed right up into the Dragons defensive line.
The Panthers winger couldn't believe his luck as the ball landed in his breadbasket and he galloped 90 metres to score in the 14th minute.
"We gave ourselves lots of questions to answer which for the most part we probably did but you can lose a game if you start like that," Ivan Cleary said.
"Fortunately we were able to defend most of it and obviously the intercept try was a nice bonus but we'll certainly want to be starting a bit better than that next week."
Naden intercepts a pass after the Panthers defence holds firm
It took a scarcely believed flick-pass offload from Zac Lomax to crack the Panthers with Mikaele Ravalawa going over just past the 20-minute mark.
Another intercept pass from Norman, this time straight to Paul Momirovski in the middle of the field, put the Dragons back under pressure and Naden soon had his second as the Panthers made a well-worked left-side shift look far too easy.
Dylan Edwards sold Gerard Beale a huge dummy to spin his way to the line in the 32nd minute and bagged his second 11 minutes into the second half capping off a lovely 70-metre team try that started when Jarome Luai put Burton into space.
It was two Penrith tries in three minutes with Cleary jolting the ball free from Jack Bird off the Dragons' next touch and Burton producing another brilliant run, beating three to score himself.
Amone was injected for the final quarter and provided some spark, setting up a Bird try with a lovely step, run and offload but the Red V were still well adrift at 28-12 with 17 minutes to play.
Paul Momirovksi ran onto a nice Cleary pass and through some very soft defence in the 69th minute before Amone produced another big step, this time scoring himself, in the 77th minute.