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Versatile Maloney's seamless shift to halfback

Penrith half James Maloney was oblivious to the criticism of how he didn't take over the reins of the Panthers after Nathan Cleary was injured in the 20-18 loss to Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs in round three.

''Was there a bit? I didn't hear it,'' Maloney told quite nonchalantly at training on Monday.

Cleary didn't return for the second 40 minutes of the game and some accused Maloney of ''going missing'' and not filling the leadership vacuum left by the 20-year-old.

''I suppose when something like that happens on the run, it catches you out a bit,'' Maloney said.

''It's hard for everyone to react because you don't train for it. We've never trained with Nathan out.

''We changed a few things going into the Cowboys game knowing he wouldn't be there.''

Nathan Cleary looking to return in 8 weeks

Maloney silenced his critics with a virtuoso performance against North Queensland in Townsville, which in itself presents hardship in the tropical heat of March.

The five-club journeyman set up two tries, scored one himself and with his eight goals and a field goal, scored 21 points in the 33-14 win.

''Not nervous, but probably more excited,'' Maloney said as he faced his first game without Cleary.

''I knew what I did out there would dictate how we went. It's exciting to be able to have that sort of effect on a game.

''But our forwards were enormous. They set a lot of that up.

''Now it's key we put in another good performance against the Eels on Sunday. It's important to back that [Cowboys result] up.''

It was important that Maloney made a seamless switch from his regular No.6 spot to the No.7 jersey, a move which permitted Tyrone Peachey to slip into five-eighth.

''I can play with my hands on the ball a little bit more at No.7 and he can be more of a runner. I think that best suits Peach's natural game," Maloney said.

''It's nice to have the quality of someone like Peach to come in and fill my spot while I move into Nathan's. It's something we'll build on and develop while he's [Cleary] gone but I think Peach and I will keep it simple but effective.''

It's a credit to Maloney's versatility that after playing so much of his NRL football at five-eighth outside Shaun Johnson at the Warriors, Mitchell Pearce at the Sydney Roosters, Cooper Cronk at Melbourne and Chad Townsend at Cronulla, he can move to halfback easily.

''It's not a foreign thing to me,'' he said.

''A strength of mine is understanding the plays and what's going on. It's nice to be in control of the way things are going - what I want to set up I can set up.

Penrith Panthers star James Maloney.
Penrith Panthers star James Maloney. ©Dave Acree/NRL Photos

''Pearcie and Chad were natural organisational players, so it was easy for me to do the other role.''

Maloney was one of the first to call Cleary after tests confirmed he had seriously damaged medial ligaments in his knee.

"I gave him a call to make sure he was doing alright,'' he said.

''He's got enough smart people around him with his old man [Wests Tigers coach Ivan Cleary] and people like that.

''He's got a really good attitude. He understands these things happen, and then you heal. If we keep travelling alright, then that will help too. He won't feel he has to rush because that's when the wheels can fall off.''

Acknowledgement of Country

Penrith Panthers players and staff respect and honour the traditional custodians of the land and pay our respects to their elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.