Cleary built for Origin: Fittler
NSW Origin legend Brad Fittler has tagged rising Panthers star Nathan Cleary as someone who has shown all the signs of someone who should play Origin.
Speaking to media at a NSW Rugby League pathways program for up-and-coming playmakers, Fittler was hopeful the emerging generation of Blues playmakers would be able to arrest the dominance their Maroons counterparts have exerted in that position over the past decade.
While Cleary was absent from the day due to club duties, Fittler also had high praise for Wests Tigers duo Luke Brooks and Mitch Moses, who took part in the session.
"Nathan Cleary, he's the one who actually looks like he handles pressure better than anyone," Fittler said.
"The thing with State of Origin, it's intense and the whole thing is dealing with pressure. You've got to look also at your life off the field as well when you want to start dealing with pressure under that sort of magnitude. He's a great example of someone who's shown real signs of someone who should play Origin."
Origin, the centrepiece of the Australian rugby league calendar, was never won by the same state more than three years running until the past decade, in which Queensland have won nine of 10 series.
Through that period, NSW have been their equals in the forwards and outside backs on almost every occasion but the gulf between the playmakers has been the difference.
Fittler said much of that came down to the fact Queensland – who have had the likes of Darren Lockyer, Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith – have boasted the best players in the country in those positions.
However with the next best playmakers in the country often hailing from north of the Tweed (in recent years names like Daly Cherry-Evans, Michael Morgan and Ben Hunt have played for Australia) there have been questions around why the Blues haven't been producing the same calibre of halves.
"[Queensland's] halves have been the best players in the game for a long time. You don't have to be Einstein to realise that the basis of their team have been our best players," Fittler said.
"We need to put pressure on ourselves on and off the field to be the best players in the NRL competition. That will then show in State of Origin on the bigger stage under pressure.
"We need pressure from underneath. If we've got all our halves playing good then it's going to put pressure on the players who were there last time and the incumbents. That is the key, the key is to make all our players good from under and that just puts the quality up."
Fittler refused to speculate on who Blues coach Laurie Daley should or would pick in those positions in 2017 but was adamant that if Cleary was good enough then he's old enough, while he also backed the two Tigers as capable of making the step up to Origin.
"Everyone here at the moment [at the pathways event] we see as showing the habits of someone we want to play State of Origin or will be at the future at some stage," Fittler said.
"[Brooks and Moses] have stepped up at a young age into first grade, they've copped a lot so they can share some great experiences about the pitfalls and the goods and the bads of playing rugby league.
"They've been playing first grade footy since they were 18 or 19 years old so I've got no doubt that they should be putting pressure on the players that are there at the moment."
Fittler said the event – which also included tutelage from fellow Blues greats Andrew Johns, Danny Buderus, Anthony Minichiello, Mark O'Meley and Paul Sironen – was "a good opportunity".
"This is part of our pathways program so we've seen all these kids come through whether it's in Harold Matthews, SG Ball, there's a young fella who's as young as 14," Fittler said.
"We phoned up Mitchell Moses and Luke Brooks and some of the first graders (such as Cameron McInnes and Connor Watson) and they were only too happy to come down and hopefully they can share also some of their experience because that's the big thing is taking that next step.
"We're not just dealing with things on the field but off the field as well and just giving them a bit of balance and hopefully giving them some skills to deal with everything that comes along."