Cleary can handle Titans threat: Panthers
Penrith players say the Titans are free to target 18-year-old whiz-kid Nathan Cleary all they like, and have a simple message in response to their plans to do so: he can handle it.
Speaking ahead of what is a critical match for both teams, Panthers players said Cleary has had no trouble matching it with big forwards looking to target him in the first 11 games of what has been a stunning start to his career.
"Yes they will [target him] but he's come up against some great teams in his short career already," in-form lock Trent Merrin said on Monday.
"He knows how to handle them... he's very professional in the way he prepares for a game.
"He's had some big players come at him the past few weeks.
"We know they'll do their homework and they'll try to target him but we've got more than confidence in him to back himself."
Merrin said it was the NYC sensation's defence, rather than his positive attacking runs or polished kicking and passing game that impressed him most, right from the time he made 38 tackles on debut against a relentless Melbourne Storm side at AAMI Park back in Round 13.
"That's probably the biggest thing that stood out for me, his debut. He was up against the biggest back-rowers in the comp in the Storm and he handled them really well," Merrin said.
"Every week he's learning more and more and his defence isn't an issue at all. He's just getting better and better each week."
Penrith winger Josh Mansour said Titans enforcer Greg Bird – who has been a teammate of Mansour's at Test and Origin level – would look to "bully" the young playmaker.
"Knowing Birdy, that's his style of game, he loves bullying the halves but 100 per cent he'll handle it, I've got no doubt in the world," Mansour said.
"I thought he's handled every team we've played against this year very well, nothing really fazes him too much. He worries about himself and what's happening with the team. I think he's been playing outstanding for us and we can't ask for much more.
"We've faced a lot of great teams and he's stepped up every time. We've still got a couple of game left until the finals and we've just got to take it one week at a time and I'm sure he's going to keep proving everyone that he deserves to be in the NRL."
In another subplot unfolding ahead of the penultimate regular season game, Cleary will be facing off against another impressive rookie halfback in Ashley Taylor, with the two seemingly in a head-to-head dual for rookie-of-the-year honours ahead of Storm try-scorer Suliasi Vunivalu, Roosters back Latrell Mitchell and Rabbitohs playmaker Cody Walker.
"He's definitely a great young talent and the best thing about him is that he's eager to learn and work hard and do the best for the team. We can't ask for any more from a young player," Merrin said of Cleary's rookie of the year chances.
"I'm absolutely loving playing with him and there's a bright future ahead for him.
"He's very humble and he's eager to learn and to work hard and he carries that every day. He's a bit of a quiet kid but he doesn't mind having a laugh too.
"He's cool, calm and collected and I'm loving every minute with him."
Mansour said he'd give the rookie award to Cleary.
"He's got a great attitude to what he does and he's a very eager enthusiastic bloke as well," Mansour said.
"Most importantly he's very selfless and always puts the team first which is a great attribute to have and we're very grateful to have him here. He's only 18 and still got a lot to prove so it's scary what the future holds for him."