Isaah Yeo says the form of pint-sized powerhouse Brian To'o is becoming impossible to ignore for NSW selectors while backing Penrith's depth to overcome what is set to be a testing rep period.
Last year's Ampol State of Origin series was held after the NRL season due to the COVID restructure but the 2021 series is looming as a testing time for a Panthers side unaccustomed to losing a host of their best players mid-season.
Cleary and Yeo are certain to be involved with To'o, Jarome Luai and Stephen Crichton also laying strong claims for Blues selection while Kurt Capewell is likely to again be in the Maroons squad.
Moses Leota and Liam Martin were spoken ahead of last series but would need a big month to push their claims for the 2021 NSW squad.
"We're lucky we've got incredible depth," Yeo told NRL.com.
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"You're going to lose Nathan so that's when you bring in Matty Burton which is one of the reasons why we kept him.
"He's obviously had opportunities earlier than what people would have thought but he's the half depth and some real quality for us.
"NSW Cup haven't lost either which goes to show they're all playing well as well.
"When the time comes, it's still a little bit away, I imagine there'll be a couple playing and it will just be next man up which we've done so well over the last 18 months."
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Of those at Penrith yet to taste Origin footy, To'o looks the most likely to earn a call-up.
Josh Addo-Carr is a certain selection on one wing but To'o will be vying with the likes of incumbent Dan Tupou, Blake Ferguson, Nick Cotric and Tom Trbojevic to partner Josh Addo-Carr.
Brisbane tried to keep To'o out of the game last Thursday by constantly bombing to him and preventing him from backing up for play-two carries but To'o still found a way to run the ball for 272 metres with 15 tackle busts.
"When a team's performing well it puts people into contention for that sort of stuff and you only have to look at Brian at the moment, he's probably the in-form winger of the comp and I guess when that happens rep football gets talked about as well," Yeo said.
"It's a hard one to ignore if you're a selector - he works tremendously for us.
"He does all those little things that might go unnoticed but he defends well, he defuses bombs well. He obviously copped a fair few on the weekend.
"He's just been incredibly reliable for us and been one of our form players of our team. I'm very happy we've got him doing our yardage carries and scoring tries at the end of it. He'd have to be in contention."
The 22-year-old has shouldered an even greater workload for the unbeaten Panthers this year in the wake of Josh Mansour's departure to Souths.
Mansour surged for 181 metres per game in Penrith's 2020 season. The veteran metre-eater has been replaced this year by Charlie Staines, who is more of a speedster and finisher but not renowned for early-set carries and is making 84 metres per game.
That has placed more importance on the tough carries of To'o, who has lifted to the challenge impressively and upped his average metres from 174 meters per game last year to 232, though Yeo made sure not to downplay the value of Staines, who is just eight games into his NRL career.
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"Charlie and Joshy Mansour are a little bit different in the way they play – Charlie's been good for us as well, he brings that element of speed to the team and a real try-scoring ability," Yeo added.
"He's been good for us - he's not even 10 games into his career just yet but they're complementing each other really well."
One player certain to be in the NSW line-up and another who seems to have found the proverbial next level this year is Panthers co-captain Nathan Cleary, whose late-game heroics against Brisbane only reaffirmed his status as the Telstra Premiership's top gun in Yeo's eyes.
"I thought he was the best player in the competition last year, I think he is again this year. He's been outstanding for us, he's standing up when we need him to.
"He's constantly getting better, he works extremely hard, he's the hardest worker I've seen. He's the first one here, last one to leave, so diligent with all the footage he watches and that sort of stuff.
"He's a wonderful leader in this team and he's still got improvement to go."
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