Panthers crashing but Jimmy’s all smiles
THIS is the sight sure to soothe the sore eyes of any Penrith fan.
Despite a heavily strapped knee, a jovial James Maloney was all smiles at Penrith training as the five-eighth got through a tough opposed session unscathed.
The Panthers have been winless since Maloney suffered a grade two medial cruciate ligament strain against the Titans in round 22.
His return for Friday night's crucial clash against Melbourne has been timed perfectly with caretaker coach Cameron Ciraldo desperate to arrest Penrith's slide down the ladder.
With Maloney back on deck, halfback Nathan Cleary says the Panthers have what it takes to become the first team to win the title from outside the top four since Canterbury claimed the premiership from sixth place in 1995.
"I think we can [win it]. I think this weekend is a very good opportunity to of prove ourselves and turn our season around. We can get a lot of confidence out of a win this week," he said.
With music blurting from the newly installed speakers at training, Maloney barked orders at training and directed play.
Cleary conceded he had missed the guiding hand of the grand final winner over the past two weeks and that his young side had been off the pace without Maloney.
"I missed him a fair bit. I think everyone does," he said.
"Being without a player of Jimmy's caliber has a negative effect on the team all around and it is good to have him back now and forming that combination again."
The Origin winning halfback also admitted his side's recent form had been a reflection of his own.
"It's been not where I want it to be. It has been inconsistent and I'm working hard turn that around," he said.
"[My form] is a reflection on how the team has been playing and that's disappointing to me, to know I'm kind of letting the boys down in that aspect."
Without Maloney at the helm, Cleary has been burdened with the responsibility of taking complete ownership of the Panthers.
But the composed 20-year old insisted the enormous duty of steering a team around the park, and back into form so close to the finals, hadn't added any more pressure than usual.
"I think it has been like that the whole year, as a halfback of the team you are going to get targeted a bit more and that's just something you have to deal with," he said.
"I have to keep working hard and add things to my game to counter that."
Cleary was also quick to shut down any suggestions that Penrith's attempt to poach his father, Tigers coach Ivan Cleary, as Anthony Griffin's replacement had adversely impacted his form on the field.
"No, I can't use that as an excuse. I think at the start it was pretty hard and it did take a bit of a toll on me but I can't use that as an excuse," he said.
"I had to eliminate a few things out of my life like social media and stop reading all the constant speculation.
"But I'm just happy to be playing footy now and it would be nice to get a couple of wins."
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