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Penrith Panthers rookies hold out Cronulla Sharks in NRL

Star halfback Nathan Cleary has guided an inexperienced Penrith team back into the NRL top eight with a stirring 26-20 ambush of Cronulla.

Cleary produced arguably the best game of his burgeoning career by either scoring or playing a hand in all four of the Panthers' tries on Friday night.

The NSW State of Origin playmaker also kicked four goals from four attempts.

His sorely needed effort came in a Penrith side without veteran James Maloney and fielding three debutants for the first time in a game since 1993.

With his team teetering on the edge of finals contention, Panthers coach Ivan Cleary gambled on teenagers Matt Burton, Stephen Crichton, and Spencer Leniu.

With former general manager Phil Gould and ex-coach Anthony Griffin in rival commentary boxes, there were plenty of eyes on the stuttering club.

And there were more moments of anxiety after Cronulla dramatically reduced a 16-point deficit to 10 with 15 minutes to play.

A Sosaia Feki try in the 75th minute set up a grandstand finish.

But, despite giving away 1356 games of NRL experience away, the Penrith cubs held on to snap their two-game losing streak and steal the Sharks' top-eight spot.

"It was exactly what I feared before the game when you have so many young guys and rookies, and that's pretty much exactly what happened," Cleary said

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"The clock was certainly moving slowly. Young guys struggle like that but we found something and showed a fair bit of character."

John Morris' side, who entered the match minus star fullback Matt Moylan, now tumble out of the top eight with just four games remaining in the regular season.

It was a supreme chance for Cronulla to entrench their finals spot, only to fluff their lines against their inexperienced counterparts.

Initially, it was the Panthers' youthful exuberance that ignited the home crowd of 10,860 who braved the single-digit temperatures by bursting out to a 20-4 lead.

Panthers second-rower Liam Martin made his intentions known early when his textbook tackle into the ribs of Matt Prior knocked the prop out of the game.

And with the exception of a 32nd minute try to Wade Graham, Penrith went out to own the first half inspired by Cleary and the rest of the Panthers cubs.

With more than 100 friends and family in the stands, Burton marked his debut by setting up the opening try with a daring grubber-kick for Brent Naden.

A Cleary right foot step ended in Edwards finishing off a 45m movement, before Cleary made it a 16-point lead by the break with his solo effort.

While pleased to see some fight in their second half dig, Morris said the damage was done in the first half.

"We knew exactly how they intended to start the game and we probably played into their hands there with a couple of cheap penalties out of our end," he said.

"We didn't really build any pressure and just felt we were on our tryline for the first half and couldn't get any go-forward or momentum."