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Cleary content with whoever wins pivotal three-way Blues battle

Jack Wighton, Cody Walker or Jarome Luai?

Incumbent NSW halfback Nathan Cleary is just glad he's not a selector. 

It's the three-way five-eighth battle that's heating up for NSW coach Brad Fittler, who will watch on with eagerness over the next six weeks in a bid to lock in a playmaker alongside an in-form Cleary. 

Fittler opted for the Walker-Cleary combination in the second two games last year after originally picking Roosters star Luke Keary alongside the Panthers halfback in the series opener. Keary won't be on a football field again until 2022 after tearing his ACL last month.

After a surprise series defeat to the rebuilding Maroons, Luai is putting himself in the frame for as a strong candidate to snare the No.6 jersey after being part of the state's extended squad last season.

Luai gained the early bragging points over Wighton in a man-of-the-match performance against the Raiders a fortnight ago with another Origin audition against Walker's Rabbitohs set for round 11.

Panthers v Knights - Round 7

Walker and Wighton will go head to head next Thursday night when the Bunnies travel to Canberra.

"There's a lot of great players in that five-eighth position at the moment and I'm just glad I'm not a selector because any one of those guys you want in the team," Cleary told NRL.com.

"Jack and Cody have been playing really well and are both outstanding players who have done a good job over the last few years.

Luai the spark, Cleary the finish

"Romey is more than ready. We've been playing together for 7-8 years now and I don't think he's overawed by any occasion.

"He is one of those guys who is always confident and has built his game around belief."

Cleary's spot in the line-up is a near certainty with the star halfback established as one of the 2021 Telstra Premiership's elite players after finishing last year on a disappointing note with grand final and Origin defeat.

The likes of Rabbitohs halfback Adam Reynolds and Eels playmaker Mitchell Moses appear to be the only players who pose a threat to put pressure on Cleary for his spot in this series.

NSW's loss to the Maroons in last year's decider was the first series defeat for Cleary since he came onto the scene in 2018.

"I had a bit of time to dwell on it, got out of the bubble and it wasn't the most enjoyable time, especially after losing the grand final a month before that," he said.

Match Highlights: Broncos v Panthers

"But it gave me time to reflect and try to get better. Through losses you can take experience and it's an opportunity for me to bounce back.

"I couldn't change the result but I can change future results. There's a cool feel around this year's series.

"You don't need to give Origin an extra hype but with it being back in the middle of the year and hopefully a full crowd again, last year's series has set a bit of a tone."

Of more immediate concern, Cleary will lead the Panthers onto BlueBet Stadium on Thursday night with the side looking to continue their club record-breaking six-game winning streak to start a season.

We'll take no risks with early returns: Cleary

After clawing past the Broncos at Suncorp Stadium last Thursday night, Cleary is wary of an injury-hit Knights side with Kalyn Ponga back from a shoulder complaint and firing in recent weeks.

"We didn't respond well enough in periods of the game [last week]," Cleary said.

"But the important thing is if you're not playing at your best you still find a way to win the game and I was happy we were able to do that.

Round 7 - Johnson and Verrills return, Hunt in 21

"They were coming through our middle which is something that will probably happen again on Thursday with the Knights having a strong forward pack.

"They've got strike all over the park and when Kalyn Ponga plays at his best, they're always a chance of winning.

"We'll have to be very good in defence and play better than what we did last week."

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