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Nathan Cleary’s breathtaking brilliance was overshadowed by a moment of utter madness by Titan Herman Ese’ese as Penrith humiliated a 12-man Gold Coast outfit 48-12 in the final game of Magic Round at Suncorp Stadium on Sunday night.

Cleary was at the peak of his powers with a stunning performance to lead the unbeaten NRL ladder leaders to their 10th victory of the year with three tries, two try assists, three line breaks and eight goals as the Panthers humiliated a disappointing Titans side in the final game of Magic Round.

The 23-year-old halfback produced a commanding performance, with repeat efforts and his sheer strength and footwork leading to his masterclass where he pushed aside four defenders to complete the fourth hat-trick of his short yet illustrious career.

Winger Charlie Staines also finished with a try-scoring double while front-rowers James Fisher-Harris and Moses Leota both embarrassed the Titans defence with bulldozing runs to score in the seven-tries-to-two massacre.

The Panthers were headed towards their fourth defensive shutout of the year until Beau Fermor scored in the 67th minute, the Titans try coming just moments after a stunning Penrith team try was brought back because of an aggressive forearm fend by Liam Martin that hit Tanah Boyd in the throat.

Fermor set up AJ Brimson for another Titans try in the 71st minute as the Gold Coast somehow managed to share the honours in the second half after trailing 30-0 at the break.

Ese'ese sent off for tackle on To'o

“He will be disappointed he missed a tackle for a try but he was good, very good,” Panthers coach Ivan Cleary said of his son Nathan.

“The best we played was when we had 12 men I thought because we kept it simple.

“I was disappointed with the last 20 minutes, I think when that really good try got disallowed it took the wind out of our sails a bit … they scored two tries and we had too many players that knocked off.

“What I didn’t want to do tonight was get in a shootout with Titans and play their style.”

While Cleary is the embodiment of everything that’s great about rugby league, his magical night won’t be as talked about as much as the brain explosion by Ese’ese who rushed out of the line to put a savage swinging arm to the head of winger Brian To’o late in the first half.

In light of the NRL crackdown for head contact across the weekend, it was absurdly ridiculous for any player to attack the contest in such fashion and his incident would’ve been a send-off any weekend of any year, not just under the new stricter regime.

“We had all weekend to look at it and spoke about it as a team. It definitely hurt us,” Titans coach Justin Holbrook said.

Cleary scores from some second phase

“We were the last game, we had all the time in the world to get our own house in order.

“He definitely didn’t mean it, for me it wasn’t direct contact.

“It’s a completely reckless decision and we paid the price for it.”

The Titans were already trailing Penrith 24-0 at the time, so the writing was already well and truly on the wall that it was going to be a long night, but being reduced to 12 men for the rest of the game turned it into mission impossible and their only hope was to stop the game becoming a total bloodbath.

And Cleary, for all his boyish charm, refused to take his foot off their throats.

He’d already cut the Titans to pieces earlier in the first half while the Panthers were reduced to 12 men after Moses Leota was sin-binned for a silly late shot on Jamal Fogarty in the 16th minute.

Cleary floats a pass over to Staines for his second

The Titans had one chance to score immediately against an undermanned Panthers side, but Phil Sami’s try was denied due to obstruction and then the Gold Coast didn’t touch the ball for another nine minutes of Leota’s absence as Penrith made a mockery of their numeric disadvantage.

It was actually embarrassing for the Titans as they conceded two tries while Leota was off with some of the worst defensive efforts they’ve produced this season.

The Titans had conceded 140 points in the four weeks prior to the Panthers clash, the 188 tally in five weeks a savage reminder of just how defensively dreadful the Gold Coast have been as they fell out of the NRL top eight with their for-and-against record plummeting.

About the only positive to come out of the game for the Gold Coast is that their next clash is against last-placed Canterbury at Cbus Super Stadium on Saturday and they can take comfort in knowing they never have the face this relentless Panthers machine again in 2021.

Penrith, meanwhile, should confront greater resistance next week as they face South Sydney at Apex Oval in Dubbo with Latrell Mitchell set to return from suspension as the Rabbitohs get to gauge their credentials against what is fast becoming one of the toughest defensive NRL outfits of all time.

Press Conference: Titans v Panthers - Magic Round, 2021

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