Ivan Cleary praises Lachlan Ilias ahead of Panthers vs Rabbitohs preliminary

Penrith and South Sydney are building one of the great modern finals rivalries.

The two clubs met in last year’s grand final – the Panthers emerging victorious – and will clash again in the preliminary at Accor Stadium on Saturday night.

There’s no love lost between the camps. Viliame Kikau ensured the fires kept burning when he antagonised the Rabbitohs by singing their song after ending their premiership dream almost 12 months ago.

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So it was somewhat surprising on Thursday to hear Panthers coach Ivan Cleary praise the opposition halfback.

Young talent Lachlan Ilias is nearing the end of his first full season in the NRL.

South Sydney put its faith in him to replace Adam Reynolds, who the club bravely let walk away following the grand final.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Ilias, who was benched in a brutal moment early in his breakout season. He has faced harsh criticism at different times this year.

Cleary, though, had nothing but nice things to say when asked about Ilias ahead of their do-or-die encounter.

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“I think he’s done an amazing job,” Cleary said.

“Having my own son (Nathan) come through as a halfback, seeing a lot of halfbacks come and go, I think (Ilias) has done a really good job. He’s filled some big shoes.

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“Throughout the season it seems like he’s only got better.

“He should be really proud of himself. Souths have done a good job.”

Ilias will on Saturday line up opposite Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary, who has established himself as the best No.7 in the game in recent years.

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