Penrith halfback Nathan Cleary overcame an infection that required a hospital visit to help his side down an error-prone South Sydney 20-12 on Thursday night.
After an impressive three-game stint, Souths fullback Latrell Mitchell had an off night, marked by four handling errors and a late visit to the sin-bin.
He wasn’t alone though as his team coughed up plenty of ball, making 12 errors and conceding eight penalties as well as badly losing the contest in the middle of the field.
Penrith had enough chances to win by plenty more but let a few chances go begging.
Cleary was in Nepean Hospital for six hours on Thursday with cellulitis, requiring antibiotics and scans to make sure the infection hadn’t spread.
The swelling was impressive and may have contributed to his shaky night with his goal-kicking.
Shots as goal aside, he was exemplary and carved over for a late try to ice the win. He busted six tackles and ran for almost 100 metres.
Panthers crossed after just eight minutes when Viliame Kikau batted back a kick and Jarome Luai fired a ball to an unmarked Brent Naden, back in the team due to a Josh Mansour knee injury, to cross out to the left.
Naden almost had two more in short order; one was called back for a forward pass from Crichton and another the defence recovered to force an error as he looked to ground the ball.
The Bunnies’ right-side defence continued to struggle and was punctured again in the 28th minute when Luai rolled a kick in behind them for Stephen Crichton to touch down.
Souths started the second half in more energetic fashion and earned a few attacking sets, which paid dividends when an Adam Reynolds inside ball sent Bayley Sironen over in the 51st minute.
That seemed to spark Penrith back into gear; they had another try called back due to an obstruction from Kikau but not such dramas when Dylan Edwards walked through some soft defence in the 60th minute. Cleary’s third straight missed conversion kept the Bunnies in the hunt at 12-6.
The killer blow was landed in the 69th minute when James Roberts was introduced for his first stint since the competition resumption as a substitute for Dane Gagai.
Luai rolled another attacking kick behind Souths’ right side defence and Roberts tackled Crichton off the ball to land himself in the sin bin and Cleary his first two points of the night.
Down by a man and more than a converted try for the final stretch was always going to make things difficult.
Mitchell then joined Roberts in the bin for a second effort following a line break and Cleary crossed soon after.
Alex Johnston crossed for a consolation try in the final minute from a lovely Cody Walker cut-out ball for a 20-12 scoreline that flattered the Rabbitohs.