While Mitchell Pearce was directing the team around the paddock in his first session with the Blues on Thursday, his phone went off in his bag.
It was a text message from Nathan Cleary.
"I can’t wait to see you back in that Blues jersey," the message said.
"I wish you all the best. I’m genuinely happy for you."
Two sons of former greats, relative strangers to one another, yet united by an understanding of the weight of relentless pressure and expectation.
One in a state of disappointment, the other in a state of disbelief.
It’s a testament to Cleary’s character that, in his darkest hour, he wanted to reach out to the man who has been tasked with the responsibility of finishing what he started.
Cleary grew up as child bemused by the way some fans took great pleasure in Pearce-bashing.
The scapegoat for many of NSW’s failures through Queensland’s golden era. After just one loss in the opening game of the series, Cleary got a little taste of the scrutiny Pearce has had to endure for the best part of a decade.
Perhaps the spotlight burns brighter when you’re the son of a former players, who since their teenage years have been billed as the next big thing.
"I suppose that’s the part of me that has always sympathised with Mitchell given what our fathers had done before us," Cleary told NRL.com.
"It’s the way it is and always will be like that. That’s why, the fact that it’s Mitchell coming in replacing me, it makes it 10 times better again. Growing up watching NSW, for some ridiculous reason it always came back on him. It makes you feel sick what he went through.
"I always feel he has been hard done by - up against the probably best Queensland team ever to play.
"I was lucky enough to win a series in my first year, so I get to experience the highs, but after the loss in game one – that criticism was enough. Everyone turns into experts come Origin.
"Halfbacks are at the forefront of that. I understand that, and it’s something you sign up for and you have to live with that. I just hope he gets what he deserves on Wednesday night because I used to love watching him play and still do."
When the message came through on Pearce’s phone on Thursday afternoon, the Blues halfback was out on the Sydney Olympic Park training fields doing his best to talk down his return in a range of interviews following training.
At that point, unaware of the message awaiting him, Pearce declared his intention to reach out to Cleary.
One maligned Blues brother to another.
"I’ll probably give him a call today," Pearce said.
"I don’t know Nathan, I’ve probably met him once, but I’ve got the easy job. I’ve come in at the last game, they’ve done all this hard work. I’ve been through these series before.
"This is the hardest game. You are physically more sore, I have the easy job of coming in at the end and hopefully steering all the boys around. He’s done all the hard work."
When Brad Fittler phoned Cleary on Sunday night, he told the Panthers halfback he would give him a week to prove his fitness.
At that point, the Blues were comfortable with the options in their side to cover for him. Fittler said as much when he fronted the media on Monday.
But later that night Fittler’s advisor Phil Gould spoke on Channel Nine’s 100% Footy and said if Cleary wasn’t fit, Pearce had to come in ahead of a stop-gap solution like Wade Graham or Jack Wighton.
By Tuesday night, at the team’s bonding session, Fittler approached Cleary with an ultimatum.
"At first there was no real deadline on it. He said we won’t train you until Thursday or Friday to get a run in," Cleary said.
"But on Tuesday night he said to me ‘we need to make a decision by tomorrow’. He said it’ll be our last chance to bring Pearcey in or it’ll be too late. I had to give him a 100% guarantee that I would be sweet. The last thing I wanted to do was get to Monday and not feel right."
So Cleary ran a straight-line test on the anti-gravity treadmill, surprisingly getting through that well.
For peace of mind, Cleary, Fittler, NSWRL head of performance Hayden Knowles and the team physio Liz Steet went to a park in Bondi to give it a final workout.
"I tried kicking and stepping, but stepping it wasn’t great," Cleary said.
"Freddie was there watching. He asked ‘how do you feel?’. I told him it didn’t feel the best and he said ‘yeah, you don’t look too good’. He left the decision up to me.
"It’s one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make, but unless I could have guaranteed 100% that I would be right by Monday, I couldn’t do it to the team. I still might be right come Wednesday, but I’ve always been brought up with a team-first mentality and the best thing for the team was for me to pull out and bring Pearcey in."
Cleary is hopeful of returning for Penrith’s next game against the Titans on Friday week, however he said he won’t rush back and at worst case will return for their following clash against the Dragons.
As for now, he’ll just follow the advice Fittler gave him as he left camp on Wednesday.
"He just said to me ‘keep your head up, there’s plenty of footy ahead of you’."
Walters wings it to Wollongong
Kevin Walters made a quick exit from Brisbane after Queensland’s training session on Thursday morning.
Walters broke camp to hop on a plane to Sydney and drive to Wollongong to watch his son, Billy Walters, make his NRL debut for the Melbourne Storm against the Dragons on Thursday night.
He won’t miss a session, with Queensland’s next training run not until Friday afternoon.
Speaking of Queensland, interestingly Moses Mbye spent the whole session on Thursday training at left centre, with Michael Morgan spending time under the post with the bench players.
Perhaps he’s not quite recovered from that concussion inflicted by Tariq Sims last week.
George's karaoke an eye-opener
Just 24 hours after George Burgess found himself in hot water over the eye-gouging incident involving Robbie Farah, the Rabbitohs prop was in Wollongong singing karaoke at a pub with teammate Liam Knight.
Burgess and Knight had been invited to a luncheon with the Thirroul Butchers earlier in the day, and decided to try their hand at karaoke at The Harp after the St George Illawarra game against the Cowboys.
A number of Dragons players were in the building when big George - who is serious about pursuing a career in acting - took the microphone, impressing with the vocals.
Massive milestones looming
Next week is a huge week for the NRL. Not only is it an Origin decider, but Cameron Smith will become the first player to notch 400 games.
It comes in the same week Benji Marshall is expected to register his 300th NRL appearance.
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.