Griffin: Cleary stood up beautifully
Faced with what was effectively a make-or-break game for their season and left without two of their best players, a 19-year-old grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and led the Penrith Panthers to victory on Friday night.
It wasn't the first time Nathan Cleary has played beyond the ever-growing expectations placed on him (and it won't be the last) but his three-try masterclass for the Panthers in a 34-22 win over the Warriors at Mt Smart Stadium ranks among his finest performances to date.
It wasn't just his hat-trick which stood out. Clearly also had direct involvement in all three of his side's other tries, assisting Corey Harawira-Naera and Waqa Blake's four-pointers with kicks and providing a key offload in the lead-up to his halves partner, Tyrone May, scoring on his NRL Telstra Premiership debut.
Post-match coach Anthony Griffin praised Cleary's maturity and ability to lead the team around the park despite the lack of experience around him.
"He (Cleary) is going to be a good player when he grows up," Griffin joked.
"It was just a really mature effort from him tonight. He had a first-gamer playing with him in Tyrone May.
"Losing our captain, we could have made excuses tonight for not playing as well as we did as a team, and for him in particular.
"He is just a really composed kid and we needed him there tonight, we needed our halfback to get a job done and he did it beautifully."
By the end of the match Cleary had run for over 100 metres off 10 runs, broken the line twice and converted five of six opportunities from the boot.
It all equated to a colossal provisional NRL Fantasy score of 120 points.
Playing just his 32nd first-grade match himself, Cleary said he had made a conscious effort to take the pressure off former Holden Cup teammate May, who was a late addition to the side in the place of Matt Moylan (hamstring).
"I just tried to take control of the team and simplify everything just to kind of make his role easier," Cleary said.
"I think it was just kind of expected of me, I didn’t say much [about it].
"I think he (May) did a great job tonight and really complemented the team well. It was awesome to get a win for him on debut.
"Me, 'Dyl' (Dylan Edwards) and Tyrone came through the grades together. I think it made it a lot easier. There was about seven or eight boys out there tonight who we played Holden Cup with and that always helps.
"It was a pretty good night, I am just ultimately stoked for the boys… especially after losing our captain, then our captain who was filling in, Trent Merrin, halfway through the first half, but it's a great effort from the boys."
Meanwhile the Panthers will await scans on the knee injury Merrin picked up in Auckland, with a full assessment likely to have to wait until Sunday.
"I didn't really know what I did when it happened. We assessed after I came off the field and they are thinking it's a medial," Merrin said.