Short way to the top for Cleary
It's generally a long way to the top for most budding halfbacks aiming to break into the NRL, but that hasn't been the case for Nathan Cleary.
The prodigiously talented Panthers playmaker has been on a meteoric rise through the ranks, going from the Holden Cup to first grade all in the space of 12 months.
In fact, Friday night's game against the Rabbitohs will be one year – minus two days – since he made his NYC debut for the Panthers in their Round 16 game against the Wests Tigers.
The Junior Kangaroos halfback went on to forge a glittering career in the under-20s, winning 17 of his 20 matches and scoring 262 points along the way.
It's incredible to think that at just 18 years of age, Cleary will run out to Hells Bells – on a 'Blackout' themed Friday night featuring an AC/DC tribute band – as Penrith's number one shot-caller in first grade.
"I don't really think that I could believe that it's happened this quickly. My aspirations were to play first grade in 2018, but for it to happen this year is amazing," he said.
"It's all pretty surreal. I'm just starting to get used to the feeling that I'm actually playing first grade. It came as a blur and really quickly this year, but it's been awesome.
"I don't want to take my spot for granted, that's for sure."
Cleary will be back in black this weekend after the Panthers had the bye in Round 15 and was set to take on Rabbitohs and NSW Blues No.7 Adam Reynolds on Friday night before the playmaker got injured in Holden State of Origin Game II.
It would have capped off a daunting three-week initiation to first grade after the 18-year-old made his much-anticipated NRL debut against Melbourne Storm and Queensland Maroons halfback Cooper Cronk back in Round 13.
Cleary was far from thunderstruck that night, making 38 tackles against the Storm, before he really showed his credentials in their last-start win over Manly with a try and 113 metres.
Coming up against players the calibre of Cronk and Reynolds seemed "crazy" to Cleary a few weeks ago, but instead of being overawed by the challenge it's something he is keen to embrace.
"I've been looking up those guys since I was a little kid and I've been trying to work my game around them," he said.
"It's pretty awesome to play against them and be able to pick their brains off the field.
"For parts of my game I try to do what they do well and try to make myself a better player by doing that."
As he readies himself for his first home game under Friday night lights, Cleary maintains a strong bond with his Holden Cup teammates who are once again on the prowl to deliver the Panthers their second NYC premiership in a row.
The incumbent Panthers halfback played a starring role in the 2015 championship side, but missed out on a spot in the grand final because of Australian Schoolboys duties.
Having forgone the opportunity to celebrate on the final Sunday of last season – and with this year's team seemingly on track to repeat the dose – Cleary said he would be willing to sacrifice a shot at the NYC title in 2016 if it meant he could stay in the first-grade squad.
"I can't take this first grade gig for granted," he said.
"They're all my mates. I've loved playing with them so I definitely follow them and watch all their games.
"I'm just taking it as it goes and hopefully I can keep my spot in the team."