Origin hopefuls hurt as Panthers thrash Dragons
BRAD Fittler left Panthers Stadium a relieved man.
His Queensland counterpart Kevin Walters could be forgiven for questioning the rugby league gods as the battle of the halves proved equally devastating for the respective interstate coaches.
To call the clash of the two top sides a sideshow to the Origin race would be disrespectful - especially after the performance of Penrith.
The Panthers - still haunted by a string of injuries - put the cleaners through the Dragons - and jumped them on the premiership ladder on points differential in front of a sell out crowd of 21565.
Penrith finished 28-2 winners racing in four unanswered tries.
Despite the blowout the opening half was among the best this season - highlighted by willing defence of each side.
There had been some doubts about the Panthers premiership credentials given they had only beaten one top eight side this season.
But that was emphatically quashed with their best performance of the season.
Fittler would have got what he wanted from his potential halves pairing Nathan Cleary and James Maloney.
While speculation mounted that Fittler was leaning towards Cleary and Luke Keary for the opening Origin battle, Maloney's form and combination with Cleary may be too irresistible for Fittler after they laid on three repeat sets.
Cleary showed no ill-effects of the long-term knee injury which threatened his Origin chances. He scored a solo 25 metre try, beating a string of tired St George Illawarra defenders to score the opener.
While Maloney has been the form half of the competition he again struggled defensively.
He missed five tackles from just nine - more than anyone else on the field - in what has been Fittler's greatest criticism of him.
Maloney said he would be disappointed if he was not picked.
"I've been happy with my footy," Maloney said.
"(My combination with Cleary) was really good. The two games back have been big step from the first couple together. Although we had some time off, Nathan was around the side and around the team that whole time. We were able to talk through a few things.
"He hasn't missed a beat. He is playing good footy. If they are looking for someone he will be right there."
As Maloney and Cleary shone, Ben Hunt hobbled off with a quadriceps injury.
He tried to play on after half-time but lasted just five minutes with huge question marks now lingering on his fitness for Origin.
Hunt's injury was compounded by potential Blues players Jack de Belin (hip) and Tariq Sims (corked thigh) struggling.
Dragons coach Paul McGregor said injuries would not rule the trio out of Origin contention.
"They won't be in any doubt for selection or when we play next," McGregor said.
"If you had a flim on (Hunt) and watched him you wouldn't leave him out there. It's got to be the welfare of the player, not only winning the game of football."
Regardless it is the first time in a decade the Blues have had a number of halves putting their hands up. Queensland are struggling.
The Thurston/Cronk combination is no more and the indifferent form of Michael Morgan will see Daly Cherry-Evans rocket back into calculations to partner Cameron Munster following Hunt's injury.
Regan Campbell-Gillard booked his spot in the Blues team with a damaging unbroken 45 minute opening stint and the final try of the match.
Penrith held an 8-0 lead at half-time with Cleary and Maloney scoring their opening points. The Dragons only points came from an ill-advised penalty goal in the 48th minute and they were soon punished for their conservative approach.
Maloney added two more points to extend their lead to eight just five minutes later before Penrith took a match winning 14 point lead when winger Christian Crichton barged over the try line in the 54th minute before Viliama Kikau carried three defenders to score.
PENRITH 28 (R Campbell-Gillard N Cleary C Crichton V Kikau tries J Maloney 6 goals) bt ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA 2 (G Widdop goal) at Panthers Stadium. Referee: Gerard Sutton, Chris Sutton. Crowd: 21,565.