NRL news 2021: Cameron Smith criticises Nathan Cleary’s boring kicking game, Penrith Panthers, Melbourne Storm, Matty Johns
Penrith faces the ultimate test to make this year’s grand final and an NRL legend has spotted a concerning sign with their star player.
NRL legend Cameron Smith believes Penrith will have to improve significantly if they are any chance to beat the Melbourne Storm in this weekend’s preliminary final.
The Panthers progressed to the grand final playoff after an epic 8-6 semi-final win over Parramatta on Saturday, which many dubbed the game of the season.
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Penrith has struggled to pile on the points in recent weeks and will have to go the long way to the premiership after they lost to South Sydney in the first week of the finals.
Smith believes the Panthers’ lack of spark in attack is partly due to star halfback Nathan Cleary’s kicking game, which he argued was “boring” against the Eels.
“Early in the match, there was a few floater bombs or spiral bombs put up to put those back three under pressure because it was quite swirly conditions up there,” Smith told SEN.
“But Nathan just looked like he just wanted to be very deliberate and boring with his kicking.
“And to some extent it worked, he was quite accurate with his kicking and pinned Parra down on the line.”
Newcastle Knights great Matty Johns agreed Cleary’s kicking game was below its best against Parramatta.
“The other night I thought that Nathan Cleary kicked really conservatively,” he said.
“There were none of those big towering bombs, so it’s a concern for Penrith.”
Johns believes the Panthers are “tired” and lacking the creativity that was a feature of their blistering start to the season.
“With Penrith, there was talk after their semi-final loss to Souths that they looked tired,” he said.
“I rejected that a little bit. I thought they were down on emotion and weren’t up like they should have been. They thought they’d just go out there and roll over Souths. But Saturday night, I saw a tired football side.
“In football, when you start to play tired the thing that suffers is your creativity and Penrith are really struggling creatively at the moment.
“They’re a long way from the side that was blowing sides off the park early and mid-season. “Isaah Yeo went from being a creative player (to) just taking basic hit-ups.”
“They play really well when they just open the field up. Watching them play the other night, it was like they were playing in a straitjacket, that’s what it appeared to be. They’re restricting themselves.”
Smith, who won three premierships with the Storm, said Penrith has been a victim of its own success, with several key players struggling to regain top form after returning from State of Origin duties in the middle of the season.
Serious injuries to Cleary and five-eighth Jarome Luai during the Origin period have severely hampered the Panthers’ momentum.
“The tiredness, we may see an effect of what Origin has taken out of Penrith this year,” Smith said.
“Unfortunately, Origin is just a result of success and the way Penrith have played over the last couple of years.
“They had six or seven players involved in the Origin series this year. It’s the first time they’ve ever had to deal with that. There’s always going to be a roll-on effect at some stage throughout the year.
“Luai and Cleary, they missed a few games after that Origin series with injuries but we’re still seeing the residual effect of having to deal with such a big series, of being up for that, now coming back to clubland and then having to lift again to try and push for a premiership.”
Penrith started the season on fire with a 12-game winning streak but many pundits believe they are up against it to win the premiership after a dip in form late in the season.
“It’s really hard,” Smith said. “You need to take those players back to the start of the year and even last year and say ‘hey listen, get back to this style of football and take that attitude into the game’.
“It doesn’t disappear and it’s all about having the mindset of playing that style of footy and taking them away from what’s happened over the last six weeks with Origin and whatnot and coming back from a couple of injuries.
“And that’s difficult. They’ve been in the top two football sides, they were the minor premiers last year.
“It’s hard being up for that long, it really is and at some stage it takes its toll somewhere in the football side whether it’s through the form of the team or a bit of a dip at some stage in the season.”
Melbourne will go in as the clear favourite to make another grand final, but Smith isn’t ruling out the possibility of Penrith pulling off an upset against his old side.
“I’m not writing them off, there’s no doubt Melbourne are in a very good position, coming off a week off and being fresh but you can’t just rule Penrith out just because they haven’t played their best footy,” he said.