Move over Matai: When did Stephen Crichton become a hitman in defence?

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He has become famous for his intercepts and long-range tries, but Stephen Crichton deserves some respect for becoming a bit of a hitman in defence.

The last time the Panthers played against the New Zealand Warriors, Crichton produced one of the shots of the year on Dylan Walker.

After being ironed out himself by Edward Kosi earlier in the game, Crichton returned serve with interest on Walker on the final play of a set. Fans voted it the tackle of the week during Magic Round.

“He’s an underrated defender, I think centre is the hardest place to defend, and when he jams blokes like that, it’s pretty good,” Fisher-Harris said, when shown vision of Crichton flattening Walker.

Panthers back-rower Liam Martin added: “Everyone knows how good he is in attack, but his defensive prowess is just as good.

“It lifts the energy when he pulls off a tackle like that. I love it. It gets you fired up.

Stephen Crichton irons out Dylan WalkerCredit: Nine

“He had got crunched himself that day, and that would have been in the back of his mind when he came up with that effort.”

Prop and good friend Spencer Leniu said Crichton was not quite in the category of former Manly enforcer Steve Matai, but it was definitely a part of his game that deserved credit.

“At school you wouldn’t have thought he was the brightest person, but when it comes to talking footy, he’s the smartest person in the room,” Crichton said.

“When he puts on hits like that, it’s not surprising. Most of the time it’s the forwards going at it and trying to spark that energy boost for the team, but when you see an outside back do it, it lifts us and the fans.”

The Bulldogs-bound centre has started to become known for his big defensive hitsCredit: Wolter Peeters/SMH

Crichton will join Canterbury next year and runs out at BlueBet Stadium in a Panthers jersey one final time.

The Warriors are without Shaun Johnson, while Penrith enter a finals campaign with their own No. 7 Nathan Cleary fresh and not impacted by injury or suspension, which has been the case the past two years.

It is easy to forget Cleary returned from a five-match suspension for the qualifying final last year, while he squeezed in a couple of games before September the year before when sidelined by a serious shoulder injury.

“The last three years have been weird because I’ve had six weeks off at different periods,” Cleary said.

Isaah Yeo and Nathan Cleary with the JJ Giltinan Shield last Saturday, the club’s third in four seasons.Credit: Izhar Khan/Getty Images

“Dad [coach Ivan Cleary] always lets me know about it. He thinks the club should take money off my contract for missing games.

“Last year I was pretty fresh for the finals because I had been suspended. I was shattered with the suspension and what I had done to the team, and I worked really hard during that period. The hardest thing was the timing.

“The year before I was a little bit worried coming back from the shoulder, but I managed to play a few games before the finals.

“This year I feel good. Winning is a lot more fun than losing, and that’s enough motivation in itself. With the new guys in our team, they haven’t had the success we’ve had, and you want them to experience those feelings we’ve had previously. There’s still so much to achieve, and it all comes back to hard work.”

Cleary loved Johnson growing up, was a Warriors fan, and once had a photo of the halfback saved as his Facebook profile. Posing for a photo with Johnson after he played against him in his first year in the NRL in 2016 remains a career highlight.

BlueBet Stadium quickly sold out, with last weekend’s scenes late in the game – which featured about five laps of the Mexican wave – the wildest Cleary has experienced at home.

The locals will be cheering Cleary. And maybe a couple of Crichton hits.

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