Fittler backs Cleary as 10-year NSW half as Panther's value soars
Brad Fittler says Nathan Cleary has the makings of a 10-year Origin halfback as the Blues No.7 prepares to cash in on his NSW success with his next contract.
Being able to leave contract discussions and off-field distractions at the door was a key focus for Fittler throughout this year's series win, with 17 of the 20 players used by NSW contracted until at least 2020.
Cleary, along with Rabbitohs hooker Damien Cook and Dragons back-rower Tariq Sims, is one of the few Blues whose future is up for debate in 2019.
Penrith have already indicated they will go all-out in contract negotiations with their prized local junior once the 2018 season wraps up.
However Cleary has admitted a reunion with father Ivan, who is currently at the Wests Tigers, still appeals, while he has also been linked with the Roosters and Broncos in recent months and is able to field official rival offers from November 1.
Still only 20 but with an Origin series win under his belt and a third straight finals appearance looming, Cleary's market value is soaring with predictions of a million-dollar salary already being bandied about.
Off the back of a solid, but by no means spectacular debut series, Fittler's ringing endorsement of Cleary as potentially the first long-term half in sky blue since Andrew Johns simply underlines the esteem he is held in.
"Absolutely, Nathan can be here for a long time with a bit of luck," Fittler responded when asked if Cleary had a decade of Origin in him.
"A big part of it is that he'll have to find a partner. Someone who compliments him at this level and will make him even better.
"It's a team sport and it often comes down to the people around you making you a better player. But he brings something to a team that gives you an unbelievable base, and you can grow off that for sure."
Fittler's wariness of contract discussions in camp was borne out of the 2017 series, when the upheaval around the futures of Aaron Woods, James Tedesco, Josh Dugan, Jarryd Hayne, Jack Bird and Blake Ferguson became a daily focus for media and fans.
While Cook is tipped to extend his tenure with South Sydney in the lead-in to the Rabbitohs finals charge, Fittler backed Cleary's cool head to prevail should contract negotiations continue into next year.
As a Panthers prodigy himself until he was lured east to the Roosters at the height of the Super League war, Penrith has Fittler in their corner when it comes to Cleary's retention.
"I hope he stays at Penrith," Fittler said.
"He's just such a good role model, he's so popular and plays such a good brand of footy, I do hope he stays at Penrith.
"He's got a big decision to make but you can tell the level of maturity with him.
"He's not out there leading teams astray or talking up the contract stuff, he's just playing footy. When he's ready to make a decision he'll make it, and I hope it's Penrith."
Wherever Cleary plies his trade beyond 2019, Fittler sees he and the Blues young cohort turning the tide when it comes to Origin support.
For years the brilliance and magnetism of Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston and Billy Slater has swelled the Maroons fan base.
With the Blues now boasting some of the most exciting and marketable talent in the game, Fittler hopes NSW can wield a similar influence in years to come.
"You look at those Queensland champions, JT's a little bit different but Billy's fast, Cameron's smart," Fittler said.
"You need to have an outstanding quality and I think those guys we've got have some real zip and that something special that will attract kids.
"Nathan Cleary, Latrell Mitchell, Tom Trbojevic, James Tedesco. They're invaluable to us."