Cleary was given his marching orders in the 18th minute after lifting Eels five-eighth Dylan Brown and driving him into the turf, with the incident completely altering the grudge match between the two great rivals.
The Eels held a 12-4 lead at the time of Cleary’s exit and added three more first-half tries to render the match effectively over before the main break. Parramatta eventually ran out 34-10 winners.
AS IT HAPPENED: Eels cruise to win after Cleary send-off
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If the judiciary determines Cleary’s tackle to be a grade-three throw, he will miss five matches, which would be a massive blow to a side already without halves partner Jarome Luai through injury.
The 24-year-old looked shattered immediately in the aftermath of the incident, repeatedly tapping his forehead with his fist after referee Todd Smith sent him from the field.
Legendary halfback Johnathan Thurston called the incident “uncharacteristic” from the Panthers co-captain.
“I don’t see him as a dirty player, but he’s got his hand in that position in his groin. He’s lifted him up and he’s driven him straight into the ground,” the Cowboys great said on Nine’s coverage.
“I think he could be in even more trouble because he rearranged his right arm. He’s got his arm around his back and then he rearranges it and puts it in between (Brown’s) legs.
“So you can see the intention is there to lift him and it’s gone horribly wrong for him. I don’t think he’s a dirty player at all.
“This is not in his game, but he’s made a second effort with his leg and he’s got him in a dangerous position. He’s going to have a lengthy stint on the sideline. He’s not a dirty player. I’ve never seen that from him.”
Former Sharks captain Paul Gallen argued he’d like to see the tackle termed a grade-two offence, which would see Cleary serve a three-match ban.
“It’s a tackle that’s gone wrong,” the former Sharks skipper said.
“At the start of the season, I’d look at that and I’d say, ‘That’s not a send-off’. I think the referee at that point in time had no option but to send him from the field.
Luai’s replacement strikes early
“I think after the Karl Lawton onehe got sent, I didn’t think he deserved a send-off at the time, but I think the precedent has now been set that if you get a player in a position like that, then you’re going to be sent from the field.”
Panthers co-captain Isaac Yeo admitted his side was rattled by the departure of its talisman.
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“We couldn’t get our heads back on until half-time,” he said.
“I thought the second half was a lot better. We practice so much with 12 men and doing that when you’re under pressure, but we just didn’t handle that really well for about the 15-20 minutes straight after Nathan went off , so that was disappointing.”
Despite the team’s second loss to the Eels this season, Penrith still retains a comfortable buffer on top of the NRL ladder.
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