Penrith rookie Cleary holds head high
Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary has all but ruled out a shock return to Penrith's Holden Cup side for next week's preliminary final against the North Queensland Cowboys.
The 18-year-old playmaker has spent the majority of 2016 playing in the NRL, but did feature in 10 matches in the NYC at the start of the season where he scored 156 points to incredibly still sit third on the points scorer list.
Cleary missed Penrith's Holden Cup premiership win in 2015 because of Australian Schoolboys duties, and while it would be fitting for him to re-join his mates to help them in their bid for back-to-back titles, it looks unlikely that he will be afforded an opportunity.
"I don't think I can go back to 20s, but I'll definitely be watching them," he said.
"I haven't really spoken to anyone about it but I've heard a few people say that I was ineligible so I suppose I'll find that out in the next few days. At this stage I don't think I can.
"If the opportunity came up [I would have been keen] but I think they're going pretty well at the moment so I don't really want to interrupt them."
While his former teammates prepare for their biggest game of the year next Friday, Clearly will reflect on what has been an unprecedented year in first grade.
Picked to make his debut against the Melbourne Storm in Round 13, the boom rookie has gone on to play 14 games in the NRL where he has not once looked out of place.
His poise under pressure, willingness to compete and freakish ability were all on show in Penrith's 22-12 semi-final loss to the Raiders on Saturday night.
Despite being targeted by big men Junior Paulo and Elliott Whitehead, Cleary never shied away in defence, making 28 tackles and forcing an error through sheer determination.
While clearly disappointed to have his season ended, Cleary was able to take stock of what could turn out to be a turning point in his budding career.
"It was a very valuable experience for me. It was definitely the biggest game I've ever played in. They had a great atmosphere out there. It would have been better with a win but I still enjoyed it," he said.
"We didn't really want to go out like that but it's definitely a big learning curve for myself and the team.
"You need to take your chances when they present themselves because you don't really get too many second chances."
Panthers coach Anthony Griffin has protected his young pupil for most of the year, but was full of praise for his playmaker following the loss.
"To think Nathan started the year in 20s and he guided us around the park tonight, it's a credit to him that he's been able to get himself to this point," he said.
"There were times during the year where you were thinking he'll drop off soon, but he kept coming."
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