Cleary: Dad wouldn't have picked me yet
Impressive young Penrith playmaker Nathan Cleary claims he wouldn't have made his debut yet if his father Ivan hadn't been moved on as coach by the club in the pre-season.
Speaking after his team's impressive comeback 31-24 win at Brookvale Oval on Sunday afternoon, Cleary said both he and his father had moved past the club's decision to let him go shortly after the conclusion of the 2015 season in favour of former Broncos mentor Anthony Griffin – but added the move may have helped him debut earlier than expected.
"It was definitely hard, especially finding out, it was a rude shock really but that happens in footy and you've just got to move on. He's moved on. There's no point moping about it, you've just got to move on to the future," he said.
Asked if he'd played sooner than he would have under Ivan, he laughed: "Yeah definitely!
"There'd be too much controversy around my old man playing me so I guess for me it was a silver lining to kind of create my own path and go down that way."
Cleary senior was on hand, along with plenty of other family members, to witness Nathan rack up his first NRL career try and victory in a match where he showed composure beyond his years and a quality kicking and running game.
"Yeah he was up on the hill. I was actually running out and I saw him up on the big screen. Most of my family's out from this way so most of them came and it was awesome to get the win in front of them," he said.
Despite being on the right end of some huge wins in his under-20s career with a dominant Penrith team, Cleary added nothing could have prepared him for the emotion of scoring a try and earning the players' player nod in a high-pressure victory in a full-fledged NRL match at Brookvale.
"It was just unreal, a dream come true really. I've been watching NRL since I was about two years old and to actually be out there and get my first win and get it in that fashion was just incredible," he said.
"I've never felt like this before ever after a game. Even in life it's just the best feeling ever."
He added his father had taken an understated approaching to supporting him as he progressed towards an NRL debut this year.
"He's definitely supportive and he tries to tip me up on little things like how – obviously he's been at the club so he knows how most of the players play, what they like and all that so it was helpful in that way but he's never too pushy or anything, he just kind of lets me do my own thing," he said.
The 18-year-old experienced a baptism of fire in his NRL debut last week in a 24-6 loss to Melbourne. He showed plenty of composure and dealt with the intense going-over he was subjected to in defence (he was forced to make 38 tackles against the Storm) and he said he was keen to improve after a tough debut.
"I got a bit of a slap in the face last week in the first 10 minutes of that Melbourne game, I was just rooted but as the game went on I just got used to it and adapted to the speed of the game," he said.
"I got a lot of help from my inside and outside men which was good, they all look after me pretty well."
Cleary also earned praise from the man he partnered in the halves against Manly in usual back-rower Bryce Cartwright, who was also instrumental in the comeback win.
"It's pretty surprising how much he talks out there. He doesn't really talk much outside of footy but he's starting to open up a bit now," Cartwright said.
"He seems to know so much out there and controls the game really well and he's great playing with."
Griffin said he wasn't sure how long he would keep Cleary in first grade for now. With senior half Jamie Soward helping Penrith's Intrust Super Premiership side to a win over the weekend and another young gun in Te Maire Martin due to return from injury in a month or so, Griffin does have other options. For now, he's happy to see how Cleary handles things.
"I thought he played really well last week, it was a tough game down there in Melbourne and they're a tough team to play, as were Manly tonight," Griffin said.
"They were trying to get into him and they were all over us but to show that composure was a really good trait that he's got with his kicking game in that second half."