Mature Cleary boosts Panthers and Blues cases
"I hope it wasn't that bad out there for you all," Nathan Cleary says, concerned for the media's well being after a scorching day at Penrith where temperatures reached 32 degrees.
Sure, you'd expect a comment like that from a captain or a veteran who has been dealing with media for years. But this is Cleary, just 20 years old, a young man already being touted as the NSW Blues' halves saviour. He displays a level of maturity beyond his years.
That composure had earlier helped steer the Penrith Panthers to a 24-14 defeat of the Parramatta Eels before a full house at Panthers Stadium.
The battle of the west was just that. After what can only be described as a disjointed start from the Panthers which saw them concede 14 early points, Cleary and James Maloney found their way as the Panthers pack took the upper hand and the team scored 24 unanswered points.
"Everyone stayed pretty calm at that stage, we knew we were just doing it to ourselves, giving them piggybacks. We knew if we held the ball and put some sets into them the momentum would swing,'' Cleary told NRL.com.
This was just the second-time Cleary and Maloney had played a full-game alongside one another. The signs were positive.
"I think some of our attacking structures will only get better in time. Holding the ball, upping our completion rate, none of it was good enough [against the Eels]. We'll be working on that and just our starts to the games, in general, need to be better,'' Cleary said.
Despite the poor first half, Cleary said coach Anthony Griffin was calm in the sheds at halftime.
"Hook didn't say too much, we were pretty confident and he just reiterated that if we just hold the ball and got through our sets they'll tire out in the back end of the half and, yeah, we did that. We came through the middle and scored some good tries,'' Cleary said.
Winning will no doubt bring a smile to any team, but Cleary was firm on his stance that this is a club with no disharmony within the ranks.
"It's true, this is a happy team. We've always thought that but the media have built it up another way, like making out we weren't, in fact, happy with one another," he said.
"We've always known in-house we were happy, so it was great to come out today and prove some of our critics wrong."
Sunday's game also gave NSW coach Brad Fittler a look at Cleary up against another Blues contender, Eels five-eighth Mitchell Moses.
Holden State of Origin talk is never far off and there has already been chat about the two combining one day for NSW. Both were named in Fittler's Emerging Blues squad back in January.
It was Cleary who had the upper hand in the round one meeting.
Moses had a game he'll be wishing to forget quickly, being sin-binned for committing a professional foul.
Then it was game on, with Cleary slicing through the Eels to set up Waqa Blake's second try for the afternoon.
"I thought our momentum was really good, we were rolling through at that stage and that [Moses] sin-bin helped our cause," Cleary said.
Surely, he has to be aware Moses is another on the Fittler's radar though, right?
''I try not to obviously think of individual match-ups too much, It was great to just get the team victory. The win didn't come down to one player, I'm just stoked to get a round one win in front of a crowd like that,'' he said.
Cleary was also aware of another potential Blues teammate playing for the opposition. Jarryd Hayne was back on the field for the Eels, his first time since 2014.
''Jarryd's a great player, he has been for a while and he brings an aura to a side where he can do anything and we were really wary of him in those last 10 minutes. You have to keep your eye on him,'' he said.
With the hype surrounding Cleary, the home crowd of 21,506 fans had to have helped the cause. It was the biggest turnout since 2014 at the foot of the mountains.
"The fans were unreal, that was the biggest home crowd I've ever played in front of and hopefully we can get that every week,'' he said.
And speaking of homes, Cleary, who still lives with dad and West Tigers coach Ivan, was looking forward to celebrating with his old man.
"Yeah, it was good to for us both to get wins first round. He told me just to go out there and play my game and it'll all work out.
''We have some family coming around tonight to will have a little celebration over some dinner, it'll be good."