Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary is ready to take control of his team as life after James Maloney begins at Penrith.
The 22-year-old may have already steered NSW to successive State of Origin series, but Cleary says assuming the dominant playmaking role will help him take the next step as a footballer and leader.
With dual-premiership winner Maloney to finish his stellar career with Catalans in the English Super League, it is time for Cleary's star to shine brighter. He is ready for that challenge.
When Maloney was injured last year it was Cleary, presently in rehab after post-season foot surgery, who showed his match-winning abilities in a 16-10 win over the Eels in round 11 that set the Panthers on a seven-match winning streak.
In 2020, Cleary will be the main man at the foot of the Blue Mountains.
"It is disappointing losing someone like Jimmy, being the good player and leader that he is, but I am really looking forward to taking on that role of running the team in what is a massive opportunity for me," Cleary told NRL.com at the launch of 2020 Magic Round in Brisbane.
"There is a lot of responsibility with that but I think it can help me take the next step, not just with my footy but the leadership of the team as well.
“There is no second-guessing, and if I see something I just have to do it. I have to take the pressure off who whoever is in the halves, whether it be Jarome Luai or Matt Burton.
"They are both young and inexperienced. I am the experienced guy now and have to take control of the side ... and that might be the best thing for me and the team as well.
"I've played with Jarome since I was 15. We got split up a bit and went on different paths but now we are back together again.
"He is electric and if he is the five-eighth next year it will be fun to play alongside him."
Cleary's off-season surgery has been a success. He had ankle surgery at the end of last year after he bravely carried the injury through the season. This pre-season he is in better shape.
"It is getting there. I had surgery about six weeks ago now and was in a boot. I just got out of the moon boot last Friday and saw the surgeon and he was pretty happy with it," Cleary said.
"I am in the rehab process now and should be back in full training just before Christmas, and then I can build into the season after that.
"Last year it was worse. I didn't get the surgery done until just before pre-season and then I was battling to get right for the trials."
Unlike last pre-season, the Panthers have no off-field distractions and after missing the finals series in 2019, Cleary said the lessons of last season's early failures must be learned.
"Coming off a season like the last one, I wasn't happy with the team's performance or that of myself.
"I have played four years of first grade and experienced the ups and downs so it is time for me to take the next step and more responsibility," he said.
"It is massive for all of us and a really good opportunity to focus on ourselves and drive forward.
"We know where we went wrong in 2019 and we need to correct that this pre-season and work hard to hopefully have some results off the back of that.
"Our start to last season was awful and we just can’t do that again.
"Last season I think we looked around at the talent we have in this team and thought everything would just happen but you can never do that in a competition like the NRL."