Penrith five-eighth James Maloney says the weight of expectation on halves partner Nathan Cleary has unfairly sky-rocketed over the past three seasons.
Searching for answers following their 30-point loss to heavyweights Melbourne, Cleary has come under the spotlight in recent days as the build-up intensifies ahead of the clash with the Wests Tigers on Friday night.
Maloney was 22 when he made his NRL debut at Melbourne in 2009, four years older than Cleary's debut at 18. He made his State of Origin debut at 26, six years more experienced than Cleary, who was only 20 during last year's Origin series.
"He's come on the scene and had such a big rise, the problem is the expectation now is immense when he's still a young kid going through and developing," Maloney said on Monday.
"No one plays their best footy for 10 years straight. You go through periods where you're on and there are other periods you're not and it's not always just you.
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"He's a big guy and knows what he needs to do. I didn't realise until today he was copping criticism.
"I've never been one to agree to singling one person out for form. We all play a team sport. He knows where his game is at and he is a harsh critic of himself. Nothing's changed for him and he's working [on it]. There's things we can do to help him as well."
The problem is the expectation now is immense when he's still a young kidJames Maloney on the pressure facing Nathan Cleary
Maloney said it was the side's mentality that he felt most let down by against Melbourne.
Penrith have been the strongest side in the final 20 minutes of games over the past two seasons but there was no repeat of that in Bathurst.
"I thought mentally we fell away which is very disappointing. It's something we need to fix up and very quickly," Maloney said.
"We need to be a bit more resilient mentally to be able to win games even if you're not 100%.
"It's probably a good lesson, I don't think it's a habit. We've made a habit out of being really strong at the end of games, that's been a strength of ours.
"The mental attitude needs to be hardened this week."
The form of Roosters five-eighth Luke Keary will play a huge role in Maloney's short-term future in a Blues jersey over the coming weeks.
While he doesn't read into the external noise, Maloney hoped loyalty played a part with Origin selection just over six weeks away.
"I don't know, I don't think you deserve anything but having been there last year in a young side if a lot of the same blokes are there it'll be another young side," he said.
"There's still a role to be played there. Luke Keary's a good player and playing good footy, it's probably understandable.
"Origin is a long time away. I'd like to think if I'm playing good footy I'll be there."