Cleary plays down Rookie of the Year chances
Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary doesn't think he'll be named Rookie of the Year at next week's Dally M Awards, but the 18-year-old admitted he recently bought a suit just in case.
Titans youngster Ashley Taylor has been widely tipped to take out the award, while Rabbitohs mature-age debutant Cody Walker was voted the best rookie by his peers at last week's Rugby League Players Association's night of nights.
Cleary is undoubtedly one of the best teenagers to burst onto the scene in the halves, and while he guided the Panthers to the second week of the finals he isn't expecting to take home any trophies next Wednesday.
"That'd be unbelievable and such a great honour, but there are some great rookies this year. I definitely wouldn't be expecting it," Cleary said.
"I'm so grateful for the opportunity. It's been an amazing year and I've definitely learnt a lot over these last 12 months. It's been crazy to be honest.
"I've said it a few times but I never expected to play one NRL game, let alone play in a semi-final. It's an unbelievable feeling."
After making his debut in Round 13, Cleary finished the year with 118 points, three tries, eight try assists and 294 tackles from 15 appearances, culminating in a 22-12 loss to the Raiders in Canberra.
Saturday's semi-final loss saw Cleary make 28 tackles – the most since his 38 against the Storm on his NRL debut – but he also made a season-high five missed tackles.
The Raiders sent plenty of traffic his way all game with hulking prop Junior Paulo repeatedly singling him out in defence on the left edge.
Cleary – who has been a tremendous defender this season – said it was all part of the process of being a teenager in first grade.
"He (Paulo) got me good a few times but that's all part of the game," he said.
"I probably need to improve on my defence with bigger players like him running at me but that's all part of the learning curve.
"There are a lot of areas in my game that I need to improve and I think that all just comes as one. As soon as pre-season comes around I'll be doing anything and everything to improve my game."
The Panthers halfback could have been excused for being overawed against Canberra, especially when his side fell behind 18-0 early in the second half.
But like he's done all year Cleary kept fighting until the very end, knocking over two clutch sideline conversions to keep his side's slim chances alive heading into the final 10 minutes.
With over 20,000 Canberra fans screaming in his ears, Cleary showed the poise of a man 10 years his senior to pilot both kicks between the posts.
"It was a pretty surreal feeling but I just tried to block it out and focus and kick the ball. I suppose that's where the practise comes in," he said.
With his first season done and dusted, Cleary – who was playing Schoolboys this time last year – said he was looking forward to a break from footy before plotting a premiership assault in 2017.
It remains unclear whether he will resume playmaking duties with Bryce Cartwright at five-eighth next year, and if not, Cleary said he would welcome the prospect of lining up alongside fellow wunderkind Te Maire Martin.
Martin was restricted to just six first-grade games in 2016 before he fractured his glenoid in the Round 8 loss to Cronulla and is tipped to do great things in the years to come.
"I can't thank people like Matt Moylan and Peter Wallace [enough] for helping me, and I'm sure they helped Te Maire as well when he came into first grade," Cleary said.
"I just want to stay fit and get away from footy for a bit. It's been a pretty big year for me and I just want to relax and be raring for the pre-season.
"For a lot of us this is the first time we've played together so we've done pretty well to get this deep in the season. Now with a big pre-season under our belts and a few rounds next year I'm hoping we can hit our straps and even improve on this year."