Ivan wants Blues to pick Nathan only if they stick with him
Ivan Cleary says his son plays like a Queenslander.
"No disrespect to anyone on that one," he says while sitting next to his son in the lounge room of their Leonay family home.
The truth is, NSW wouldn't mind hearing that. They need a bit of Queensland. Some say they need a bit of Nathan Cleary. But his father remains wary – of the opinion the Blues shouldn't pick him unless they are ready to back him for a long time.
Don't be fooled by the somewhat emotionless façade Ivan puts up as a coach and in his press conferences. He's fiercely protective of Nathan.
"You always worry about that sort of thing and anything negative that might happen to him," Ivan admits when pressed on the impact of the prospect of Nathan being picked before his time by Blues coach Brad Fittler.
"I think if Nathan gets the opportunity, as a young player you need to back them for a while so if they're not ready to do that then they probably shouldn't pick him. I've heard Freddy talking about how he's looking to try and cultivate a team that plays like a team and not rely on any one, two or three players.
"I think that's a really good thing and something the Blues could really use the next couple of years ... I like that sound. We've been very keen to stick the knife into one or two players over a two-point loss for a number of years for NSW. I think it's more of a collective, so to hear Freddy talk in those terms, it's a good sign."
In the aftermath of another NSW series defeat last year, Penrith general manager Phil Gould said Cleary wasn't ready to be thrown the daunting task of being the Blues saviour.
"NSW have an unenviable record of bringing young halves into Origin football well before they are ready, and/or well before the team is well enough equipped to accommodate them,'' Gould told The Daily Telegraph last year.
"It is my intention to ensure that doesn't happen to Nathan Cleary. End of discussion.''
While Ivan and Gould may have differing views on the way things ended between them at the Panthers, they do share the same concerns over Cleary's ability to handle the rigours of a mentally and physically draining Origin campaign.
They don't want to see him become yet another on the list of NSW players burnt by Origin and the lasting scars it could leave.
Nathan has never spoken to Gould about the comments he made last year. But did he agree with them?
"To an extent," Nathan admits.
"I think it was kind of fair what he said that I wasn't ready to play Origin. That was with the expectation – we've seen young halves come in and it's probably not the greatest thing to happen to your career. To come into Origin and lose, and if you cop the blame for that it's a pretty harsh thing to happen. We'll see if I'm ready or not now, but it was probably fair at the time last year.
"It seems like even people who don't watch footy tend to watch Origin. It's such a big thing in Australia and with that comes expectation. It's a pretty daunting and exciting prospect to play Origin. You can see that with Mitchell Pearce the last few years. He's kind of been – in my opinion – unfairly blamed for those losses when it is a team sport."
Nathan has never been the superstar of his junior teams. He does the simple things, and he does them well. He does the Queensland things.
Which is why his father admitted he has the same qualities that have helped the Maroons dominate for more than a decade.
"I think Queensland, the biggest reason for their success is that they play as a team," Ivan said.
"It doesn't matter who they brought in at various times, because they've had injuries and changes along the way. But whoever they've brought in has always looked like they have played well. It's a lot easier to play well in a team where everyone is functioning and everyone understands each other's role and does their thing.
"Ever since Nathan started playing, he's never been that outstanding kid who scores a lot of tries or who you watch and think 'this guy is a freak'.
"He's never really been like that, but he's always done a good job for his team. An all-round job, making tackles, kicking well, running, supporting. That kind of stuff. That's what he has always been most focused on. I think that will serve him well for the rest of his NRL career and if he ever gets a chance in the Origin arena, that's the sort of stuff helps you play well in those games."
Nathan has proved he can handle the pressure-cooker moments. Like last year when he played against his father's Wests Tigers for the first time.
It wasn't until the final five minutes did Ivan allow himself to become father of Nathan. For 75 minutes of the clash, Ivan wasn't distracted. He wasn't thinking about his son.
"Then that moment came," he admitted.
Right in front of the away coaches box on the western sideline at Panthers Stadium, Nathan lined up a conversion that would all but end his father's hopes of victory.
"It was the one time where I thought 'oh, this is a big kick for him'," Ivan admitted.
"It was a big kick for us too. But I knew he'd kick it."
And like so many times throughout his short career, kick it he did. "As it went over I just felt good for him to be honest," Ivan said.
"It's a strange feeling when you're getting the knife in the chest for your team but you're happy for the kicker in the other team."
Despite living a few kilometres away from Panthers Stadium, they won't be travelling together to the game.
"He brushed me last time," Ivan jokes. "I don't want to go with him anyway. He signs too many autographs and gets stuck taking photos."
There is something special about the father-son bond the pair share that attracts NRL fans to their story.
"But we're just a normal family," Ivan says.
Perhaps, yes. But in rugby league circles there's a mystique surrounding their rapport that goes beyond the intrigue of if dad will ever coach his boy.
He's proud of his son. "He actually does tell me too," Nathan admits.
But he idolises his old man. "I'm proud of him," he says as his father looks in the other direction to avoid getting swept up in the emotion.
"For him to get sacked from Penrith and then to come to the Tigers and turn it around so quickly, it does make me feel really proud. When you hear people say that they think dad's a pretty good coach, it does reflect back on me.
"I think I'd rather hear he's a good coach than I'm a good player from time to time."
The draw hasn't been friendly to the Cleary family. There have been many occasions that have prohibited Ivan from watching his son.
"I've caught a few on the phone before our games," Cleary says with a chuckle.
But in round three, the night Nathan got injured against the Bulldogs at ANZ Stadium, Cleary was at Campbelltown preparing for a game of his own.
"I was checking the results trying to keep up with what was going on while our game was getting ready," Ivan said.
"Someone sent me a text that he'd got hurt because I didn't see it. Then we lost in golden point so it wasn't a great night all-round. It was a weird feeling, because since Nate started playing footy, I don't ever remember missing a game.
"When he first got injured that's the first thing [I did] when I knew it was long term - I checked the draw and it looked like we were going to get away with it. But all roads have been leading to this week. Obviously, I'm really happy he can come back as soon as he can, but the fact it's against us is very ironic."
No, Nathan wasn't asked, yet again, in this interview if he would be at the Tigers in 2020.
But it was suggested that perhaps the Tigers wouldn't need him the way Luke Brooks has been performing.
"Yeah that's true," Ivan says, nodding his head.
Nathan added: "It would be pretty hard for him [Brooks], I suppose. I wouldn't really like to be in his position to have all that speculation going round. But the way he's playing this year it's actually really good to watch. He's been on fire."
Ivan moved quickly to avoid any unnecessary awkwardness last year when the notion of father and son uniting at the Tigers was first raised.
"I tried to be up front and transparent about it. To Brooksy's credit he's handled it really well. It's probably the least of Luke's concerns over his career so far. He's had so much expectation placed on his shoulders as a young man.
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"The way the Tigers have been and the side that he played in - this little thing we're talking about is probably a breeze for him. I have a lot of faith in Luke."
Nathan will move out of the family home into a Penrith apartment at the end of the year. No doubt his expenses will increase, but Ivan is quick to remind him of the status of his bank account.
Nathan replies: "A decent contract would be nice".
"Yeah, well, you know where to find one," Ivan fires back.
You've got to love it.
Salmon breathing down Norman's neck
There were a few raised eyebrows among Parramatta fans when Corey Norman posted images of his night out on Saturday. It hasn't gone unnoticed by some at the club.
He did absolutely nothing wrong but it came just 24 hours after a devastating loss. Where there's smoke there's fire, and the whispers about Norman's level of happiness at Parramatta won't go away.
Rival clubs have made approaches and enquiries. NRL.com understands the Eels are starting to get frustrated with Norman's inability to rediscover his best form.
Rookie playmaker Jaeman Salmon has been named on an extended bench for Friday's clash against the Warriors but won't play. He is a development player outside the 30-man squad.
The Eels haven't filled their 30-man list and have until June 30 to do so, but until then he won't be able to play unless there are injuries and the NRL grants the Eels permission to bring him in.
Eels shoot themselves in foot
The Eels have only got themselves to blame for their poor start to the season. But it has been compounded by the realisation that in five of their eight losses this year, they've scored the same number of tries as their opposition.
Watch out for the ballgirl
While Nathan Cleary will have his father in the away coaches box at Panthers Stadium on Thursday night, his sister Malaya will be a lot closer to the action.
The youngest Cleary daughter is actually the Wests Tigers' ballgirl. "Malaya has already started heckling me saying she's going to throw the tee at me or forget to give it to me," Cleary said.
Ivan says his wife will be on the bus with the Tigers. "She knows where her bread is buttered," he joked.
Family tickets at a premium
The Cleary battle isn't the only family affair at the foot of the mountains on Thursday night.
The Watene-Zelezniak brothers will square off for the second time in their careers, with Dallin requesting close to 50 tickets from the club for family members and his youth group.
One of their sisters is flying in from New Zealand on game day just to watch them play. The last time they played Dallin scored two tries and chalked up a victory but this is a vastly different Wests Tigers team.
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.