Alexander backs Panthers rookie Cleary
The future of the Penrith Panthers appears in good hands after teen sensation Nathan Cleary made his highly-anticipated NRL debut last weekend in Melbourne.
Cleary's selection in the first-grade squad should come as no surprise after he burst onto the scene midway through last year's Holden Cup competition and has taken his game to dizzying heights in the 12 months since.
The son of former NRL player and coach, Ivan Cleary, took on New Zealand at the end of 2015 as captain of the Australian Schoolboys squad and was this year named in the halves for the Junior Kangaroos in the trans-Tasman Test.
He is the runaway leading points scorer in this year's NYC with 156 from just 10 appearances, including 56 in his past two games alone. He has scored seven tries and boasts 13 assists; his form so good he was recently promoted to the club's Intrust Super Premiership side.
Barely out of high school, Cleary completed his meteoric rugby league rise when he took the field against the Storm for his first taste of NRL action on Saturday night.
It was a proud moment for the Cleary family, and one Panthers great Greg Alexander was honoured to be a part of.
The former Penrith halfback and fullback presented his fellow St Dominic's College graduate with his jersey on Saturday night before calling the game for Fox Sports.
"It was a privilege to hand out the jumper for Nathan's debut game," Alexander told NRL.com on Wednesday.
"I couldn't give him too much advice 45 minutes before kick-off but he's a very confident, composed young man. That was a special night for Nathan; your debut always is.
"I spoke to Nathan the other day and told him that for all the excitement around making your debut – playing with men for the first time, playing with guys who you've looked up to and you've watched for years as a kid – you have to remind yourself that it's still just a game of footy.
"What you did through your career to get yourself ready for that game – because you spend your whole life getting ready for that game in first grade – just approach it like any other game of footy. Trust in what got you there and you'll be fine."
Such a mindset is easier said than done as 'Brandy' revealed.
"It's easy to say that now that you should approach it like any other game. Of course I didn't. It wasn't that easy," Alexander said as he described his debut back in 1984 as a fresh-faced 19-year-old.
"I had a different introduction to first grade. I sat on the bench and only played a little bit in Round 2 and then started the following week at five-eighth. I was a bundle of nerves.
"Once Nathan settles in and realises that what worked for him throughout his junior career – and it was a prodigious junior career – it'll work in first grade."
Cleary couldn't have asked for a tougher initiation than a road trip to Melbourne to take on a Storm side featuring stars Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk in greasy conditions, but more than held his own with 38 tackles and some classy touches in attack.
"Melbourne's big guys were so good and that made it difficult for Penrith and Nathan in particular," the Fox Sports commentator said.
"It was slippery down there and there was no surprise to see Smith and Cronk play as well as they did. They always back up well after Origin and Cronk was outstanding."
Last weekend's debut was made more comfortable with Jamie Soward partnering him in the halves, but that won't be the case against the Sea Eagles this Sunday afternoon.
The veteran playmaker has been dropped back to the Intrust Super Premiership, leaving Cleary to steer the side around as the chief play caller.
Alexander isn't overly concerned with the added responsibility set to be thrust on the rookie halfback's shoulders and is backing Bryce Cartwright to do a job in the unfamiliar No.6 jersey.
"Bryce hasn't played a great deal at five-eighth but he'll have no problems handling it," he said.
"I'm sure Nathan is ready for the challenge ahead. He's got a long career in front of him. He's only 18, which is very young for a player in that position, but he looks confident enough to handle it. I think I saw enough on Saturday night to make me think he'll be very good once he settles in."
Sunday's pairing looms as a makeshift combination for Panthers coach Anthony Griffin, with Alexander predicting boom rookie Te Maire Martin to partner Cleary in the halves long term.
Martin made the most of his opportunities earlier in the year with a try and the game-winning field goal against the Broncos on debut in Round 3, but has been sidelined for the past six weeks after picking up a potentially season-ending shoulder injury.
"That's the way we're headed," Alexander said when asked about the club's future.
"Te Maire Martin is a great talent and Nathan is quickly getting there. There aren't many people who can play halfback at 18 but I think he'll handle it."