Penrith rookie welcomes NRL break

Penrith rookie Nathan Cleary says he’s ready for a break after his fairytale rise to the NRL came to a crashing end in Canberra on Saturday night.

The Raiders blew the Panthers away early at GIO Stadium before holding off a late comeback, which included two clutch sideline conversions from Cleary to keep his team in the game.

It was yet another mature performance from the 18-year-old, who has enjoyed one of the more stunning ascensions to first grade in recent memory.

But the son of former Panthers coach Ivan has welcomed the upcoming off-season, all but ruling himself out of a possible return to the club’s under-20s preliminary final this week.

“They’re going pretty well at the moment so don’t really want to interrupt that. I’ll definitely be watching them,” he said after their NRL defeat to Canberra.

“I’ll try and stay fit and get away from footy for a bit. It’s been a pretty big year for me. I’ll just relax and then be raring come pre-season.”

The Panthers were treading in 10th spot when coach Anthony Griffin made the bold decision to sack veteran Jamie Soward and give Cleary a debut against Melbourne in round 13.

And while Penrith lost that game, they won nine of their final 12 regular season games to finish in sixth spot before roaring over Canterbury in an elimination final victory.

Griffin admitted to waiting for the rookie Cleary to hit the wall for the entire back end of the year.

“It’s a credit to him that he’s been able to get himself to this point,” Griffin said.

“There were times during the year where you were thinking ‘He’ll drop off soon, he’ll drop off.’ But he just kept coming. Unfortunately tonight, it comes to an end, but we’ll get on with it.”

With the Panthers unlikely to have to farewell in the summer any of the 17 players who took the field against Canberra, Cleary said he is looking forward to improving on this year’s finish in 2017.

Injured players Dean Whare, Peta Hiku, Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Sam McKendry, together with big-name recruit James Tamou, are set to bolster the squad.

“For a lot of us, this is the first time we’ve played together,” Cleary said.

“We’ve done pretty well to get this far deep into the season. With a big pre-season under our belts, I’m hoping we can hit our straps and even improve on this year.”

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