“He turned up and his face was pretty swollen, and that’s when we worked out he had an infection,” Cleary said.
“He then came in Wednesday, we worked out antibiotics weren’t really working and he was worse, so he was in hospital most of yesterday, on an IV drip and all that sort of stuff.
“He showed some better signs, but we had to wait until this morning and then halfway through today [we thought] he was OK.
“Infections are a little bit tricky, especially around that area. He had scans to make sure it had not got into his sinus area, and once they were clear, and the swelling went down a bit … he was right.”
Cleary praised the club’s medical coordinator Craig Catterick for monitoring the star playmaker.
He quipped his son’s ”modelling career was over”, but when the Herald politely pointed out he was once again the best-looking Cleary, Ivan shook his head and said: “No I’m not. [Nathan’s] mother is.”
Cleary copped a decent whack from Blues teammate and South Sydney lock forward Cameron Murray in the opening minute to make his face look even worse.
When Cleary scored the final try to ice the 20-12 win with three minutes on the clock, Nine must have been tempted to lift the game’s classification to an MA rating.
Fittler said because of the disrupted preparation Cleary was entitled to turn up and play “in a dinner suit”, while Andrew Johns was so impressed he declared it had been “the best game I’ve seen him play”.
While Penrith fans will awake knowing their team will sit first for at least 36 hours – losses to Parramatta and Newcastle on Saturday will see the Panthers remain in first by the end of the weekend – there was not much to cheer for Souths.
James Roberts was playing his first game since the COVID-19 shutdown and was sent to the sin-bin for taking out Stephen Crichton as he chased through after a kick for a try.
Then Latrell Mitchell was given his marching orders later in the game when he did a brilliant job bringing down Brent Naden but held him down too long.
Souths had started to get a roll on heading into the Panthers clash with wins against the Gold Coast Titans and Warriors, and with Mitchell and Cody Walker looking the goods.
But Souths and coach Wayne Bennett were given a rude wake-up call when defeated 20-12 by a genuine premiership threat.
Had Cleary not had a rare off night in front of the goals, the margin would have been far greater.
Cleary has not looked back since returning from his two-match ban for his TikTok Anzac Day social distancing drama.
His halves partner Jarome Luai also improves with each game, firing a rifle-like pass for Naden to score the first try, then putting through a grubber for Crichton to double the lead in the first half.
The Panthers had plenty of joy terrorising Souths down their left edge, which include the ‘Flying Mop’ Billy Kikau. Kikau did well to get his hands to a Cleary bomb that helped set up the first four pointer.
Naden could have had a first-half hat-trick had a final pass from Crichton not travelled forward, and he was not later man-handled into touch when short of the line.
Naden was only given the nod to start the game that was shifted to Kogarah because of a knee injury to Josh Mansour.
The Wests Tigers’ right edge that will already be having nightmares about how to start the Panthers lethal left-edge next Saturday night.
To prove how much traffic Penrith directed down that side of the field, Souths right centre Campbell Graham had made 15 tackles by half-time, which is the same numbers middle forwards would post.
Graham was shifted to the right wing when Graham was cleared for take-off in the 50th minute, which forced Queensland Origin winger Dane Gagai out of the game.
Cleary was excellent late, forcing a few repeat sets to deny Souths any late miracle comeback.
Christian covers rugby league for The Sydney Morning Herald.