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Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary wraps up Sam Burgess in Round 16.

His attacking prowess is what got him a start in the NRL, but it's Nathan Cleary's defence that has his Penrith Panthers teammates singing his praises leading into this weekend's clash against the Wests Tigers. 

Heading into his fourth game in first grade, Cleary has already shown how good he can be with ball in hand with tries in each of the past two matches, but it's his work at the other end of the field that has perhaps been most telling.

Cleary was targeted by the Melbourne Storm on debut in Round 13 but survived the NRL's sternest test with a whopping 38 tackles and only three misses. 

He has since made another 39 tackles and looks like a seasoned campaigner in defence rather than the fresh-faced Holden Cup graduate who is still eligible for the under-20s competition. 

Panthers backrower Isaah Yeo said he couldn't have predicted just how well Cleary would handle the step up to first grade in his rookie year, praising the 18-year-old halfback for his defensive efforts against the Rabbitohs last Friday night.  

"He's come in and he's been outstanding, not just in attack where he's been taking on the line and his kicking game has been good, but it's been his defence [which has really impressed me]," Yeo said. 

"I knew he had a level head on him. You could see the skills in the 20s and he had the game in NSW Cup, but it's obviously a different level in first grade. 

"Sam Burgess played back-row for South Sydney on the weekend and we knew we were going to get a bit of traffic down that edge. 

"He (Cleary) made a couple of crucial try-saving tackles and just showed that he's not just here for his attack, but he can hold his own with the big boys in defence. I think that's been the best part of his game so far. 

"A lot of the boys are confident around him and they know he can do his own thing and we don't have to do too much."

While there was no doubt that Cleary had the potential to be a rugby league star, few could have expected him to be as composed as he has been just three games into his NRL career. 


Despite being one of the youngest players in the game, the Panthers halfback hasn't shied away from his duties as on-field general, choosing to instead bark orders to more experienced players like Yeo.

"I remember when I first came in I was not saying a word, but he's come in and he's leading the training sessions, he's calling the sets and he's showing that in the games as well," Yeo said. 

"He can take a back seat if he wants with Peter Wallace at nine and 'Carty' (halves partner Bryce Cartwright) doing his own thing at six, but when he needs to be [vocal] he's more than happy to do it. 

"He's only young but he's more than happy to direct us around the park, and I think you need that in a half. I think that's why he's going to go on and have a long and great career." 

Having started life as a first-grade footballer alongside NRL veteran Jamie Soward, Cleary has played the past two games with Bryce Cartwright in the halves. 

Cartwright – who is only 21 – has predominately played in the backrow since bursting onto the scene in 2014, but moved into the No.6 jersey for the Round 14 game against the Sea Eagles. 

The Panthers have scored 59 points in the two games with the rookie halves, and according to Cartwright, his combination with Cleary will only get better. 

"When we're on we're playing really well," Cartwright told media on Tuesday morning. 

"We connect really well together. It's still going to take some time – it's only our third game together – and my third game at five-eighth.

"I keep telling people that I can't believe he's 18, which is pretty scary how good he is and how much he leads our team around. 

"I watched a few 20s games of him, but I heard more about him than I'd seen. Training with him and playing with him, it's just amazing how good he is and how much he knows about the game."

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