Cleary says Lewis not replaced as Panthers crush Sea Eagles

They were against the reigning premiers who kept them scoreless just last month but a gutsy Penrith Panthers served up an exquisite slice of revenge with a 22-4 victory over the Manly Sea Eagles at Centrebet Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

After a lengthy bout where no points were scored by either side, Panthers fullback Lachlan Coote broke the deadlock with a try in the 32nd minute and the side went into the break with a 6-4 lead.

Only Penrith bagged second half tries with centres Brad Tighe and Geoff Daniela and on-off captain Luke Lewis powering over the line to silence the Sea Eagles and seal what coach Ivan Cleary described as the team's best win of the year.

"Certainly for 80 minutes," Cleary said.

"It’s probably the big thing out of today’s game, was the control we showed, right throughout the game.

"There were sort of pockets in the first half we could have done better but in the second half I just thought we really controlled them."

And that’s where the discussion in the post-match media conference about the game itself ended.

The stripping of captaincy from club stalwart Luke Lewis overshadowed the final result but Cleary was adamant the NSW State of Origin representative hadn’t been dumped and said he intended for Lewis to return to the role when the 2012 series was over on July 4.

In terms of the NRL draw, that's just before the Panthers' round 18 bye.

"I'd like to make a point that he hasn’t actually been replaced," Cleary said.

"It’s hard when your focus is on Origin all the time.

"It’s not just the game, it’s the amount of trainings you miss.

"I’m just trying to ease that burden and allow other people to step into the role."

Cleary added the decision was "not really" difficult and made "purely for the good of the team".

"I wouldn’t have made it if I thought it was going to hurt," he said.

"I respect Luke as incredible amount, not just as a player but as a person and a captain but this Origin period is a long, tough, tough one and our [Origin] boys are away three games.

"We’re also a team that needs some leadership growth and its important some of the other guys step up and it’s a good chance for that to happen."

Having informed Lewis he would be relieved of his captaincy duties after he returned to the Panthers’ squad from NSW camp late last week, Cleary said Lewis "understands the situation and just got on with the job."

Newly elected skipper Kevin Kingston- who slipped into the role for the first time in last week’s loss to the Cowboys- said Lewis’ leadership would still be important to the team despite not having the prestigious ‘c’ next to his name.

"Luke’s been great about it, he’s a team player and he wants to do what’s best for the team so he’s going to help me out as much as he can," Kingston said.

"Not just me, but all the other leadership guys can step up and help out and take the weight off him as well."

The other topic of controversy directed at Cleary was the uncertain future of speedster Michael Jennings and rumours that he’d been shopped around to other clubs.

Cleary said he was unable to clarify the situation but insisted he wanted Jennings to return to the Panthers’ line-up.

"I’m looking forward to having him back playing for us," Cleary said.

"I thought he showed some good signs [in Origin] the other night, it was just unfortunate I suppose the incident led to him being unavailable today."

Cleary has made several significant decisions in recent weeks with numerous Panthers players demoted to and promoted from feeder club the Windsor Wolves along with the call to put Lewis’ captaincy into hiatus.

But he said he took no personal satisfaction seeing controversial risks pay off- the Panthers have won two of their past three games with a narrow yet promising loss sandwiched in between.

"That’s my job," he said.

"I only ever make decisions based on what I think is good for the team.

"Obviously some are good and some maybe don’t work out but that’s all I’m trying to do.

"But I don’t think that’s the issue today.

"The issue is the boys played really well, prepared really well, came out and showed their fans again, two home games in a row with two wins and hats off to the players."

Kingston defended Cleary’s boldness in making tough decisions.

"We know we’re all on our toes, we’ve got to perform every week, we’ve got to be hard to beat," he said.

"And if not, that’s what Ivan’s job is, to make the hard calls."

Asked if he thought the Panthers’ season was beginning to turn around, Cleary was optimistic.

"It was a disappointing loss last week [against the Cowboys, 30-28] because I really thought we had every right to win that game but to be able to bounce back and play well is a good sign.

"We’re obviously still at the wrong end of the proceedings in terms of the table but we should get a fair bit of confidence out of today’s game and we’re looking forward to having a rest next week and getting on with the job in the most important half of the season."

A rampant Lachlan Coote allowed Penrith to strike first against the Sea Eagles after a blistering Luke Walsh line break sent the speedy No. 1 flying over the line in the 32nd minute.

Walsh converted but Manly hit back quickly with a try to Dean Whare in the 36th minute before a failed conversion left the Panthers with a 6-4 lead at halftime.

A gritty second half again began in a pointless fashion before the Panthers cracked Manly's defence and extended their lead.

Coote fired off a kick over the line before Brad Tighe out-ran some flustered Sea Eagles defence to score a four-pointer in the 62nd minute.

Sharpshooter Walsh converted and the Panthers led 12-4.

A Steve Matai hit on Danny Galea landed the Panthers a penalty in the 67th minute before Walsh unleashed a kick that Geoff Daniela pounced on to score.

Walsh again slotted the extras and Penrith cemented an 18-4 lead with just over ten minutes remaining.

Demoted captain Lewis reminded the 11, 844 spectators why he warrants respect when he exploded through the Sea Eagles defence and sped over in the 75th minute.

Walsh missed the conversion but it mattered little as Penrith cruised to a 22-4 lead, a victorious score line that remained unchanged at full-time.

The Panthers have a bye-round next weekend before returning to Centrebet Stadium to do battle with the New Zealand Warriors on Monday June 11. Kick-off is 5.30pm.

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