It was the trysaver of the year and might turn out to be the most important play of Penrith’s 2017 NRL campaign.
Teenage halfback Nathan Cleary kept the Panthers’ finals hopes alive with a classy display in their 24-16 win over North Queensland on Saturday night, highlighted by a brilliant tackle to stop what seemed a certain Coen Hess try.
Cleary’s two second-half tries were the difference between the two sides however his desperate, lunging tackle on the Cowboys forward turned the game.
With the Cowboys up 16-12 in the 55th minute, Hess charged into a hole from five metres out and looked set to cross for what would have given his team a 10-point lead.
Despite giving away 22kg, Cleary managed to get under the Queensland Origin forward and prevent him from scoring.
“I don’t know. He was kind of targeting me the whole game. He was running amok on me,” Cleary told AAP.
“I just had to get one back and I was lucky enough to get underneath him.
“It was just spur of the moment, I saw the ball and knew I had to try and get underneath him.”
Panthers coach Anthony Griffin admitted it would have been a different ball game had Cleary not managed to save the try and questioned whether his side would have come away with two points.
“The tackle was unbelievable,” Griffin said.
“It was the play of the night for us. It was just a really desperate defensive game for us, we scrambled really hard, they scrambled really hard.”
The Cowboys subsequently ran out of gas on the back of injuries to Justin O’Neill and Michael Morgan with the Panthers jumping to sixth spot and putting them in touching distance of a top-four finish.
Cleary has been a big part of their late-season revival, which has seen them win six straight, and has led Penrith to begin talks with his management about extending his deal.
Already contracted to the end of 2019, Panthers Group CEO Brian Fletcher has stated his desire to sign him to a five-year contract extension on top of his existing deal which would lock him up until 2024.
“I haven’t really looked too much into it,” Cleary said.
“There was talk about it but I haven’t spoken to anyone about it, not my manager, not Penrith.
“I’m concentrating on footy at the moment and I’ve still got two years here.”