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Luai, Cleary to target Walsh as rookie faces 13 Blues for first time

After exorcising the ghosts of 2020, NSW playmaker Nathan Cleary is set to haunt Queensland bolter Reece Walsh in Sunday's State of Origin game two clash in Brisbane.

And adding to the daunting prospect facing Walsh is the fact he's never played a game against Cleary or his halves partner Jarome Luai, who will bombard him with kicks in his Origin debut.

In fact, Walsh has only faced four of the NSW game-day 17 at NRL level with the Warriors and was on the losing end of the scoreline on each occasion.

Luai said on Thursday that Cleary was primed to make up for last year's upset loss to Queensland as the Blues prepared to claim a rare series clinching win at Suncorp Stadium.

Cleary was still dealing with the fallout over the Panthers' NRL grand final defeat to Melbourne when he ran out for NSW in the late 2020 Origin series, which was played in November for the first time due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Dally M Halfback of the Year copped the brunt of criticism in the wake of Melbourne's triumph over Penrith in the season decider and struggled to bounce back against Queensland.

In the end, the Maroons sprung one of their trademark come-from-behind series boilovers, prompting yet more questions over Cleary's ability to step up in big games.

After watching Cleary's stellar 2021 season form from the best seat in the house, Luai has backed his halves mate to show why he is the game's No.1 player by icing a season deciding victory and NSW's first win in Brisbane since 2017.

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And that should sound alarm bells for Walsh, whose selection was described as a desperate move from the Maroons by Immortal Andrew Johns in his Sydney Morning Herald column.

The New Zealand Warriors X-factor is flying high after earning the Maroons No.1 jersey with just seven NRL games under his belt but NSW hope to bring the teenaged debutant crashing back to earth.

Walsh has never played Penrith in his short NRL career and will line up against Cleary for the first time in the must-win clash.

Luai let the 18-year-old know exactly what to expect after NSW training at their Kingscliff camp near the Queensland border on Thursday - and it didn't bode well for Walsh.

"I think everyone knows what Reece can expect in game two," Luai told NRL.com.

"It is the repeat sets [from Cleary kicks], it is Nate's 40-20s, it is his running game - you have so much to think about when you are playing Nate.

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"It will be a really big test for him."

Former NSW forward Andrew Ryan agreed Walsh faced a tough Origin crash course after watching Cleary go through his paces at Blues training at Kingscliff on Thursday.

"There will be challenges for him posed by him [Cleary], no doubt," said Ryan, a veteran of 12 Origins.

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"Reece looks like a superstar already but Origin is a different beast. I am sure they will try to put him under pressure."

Debate is raging over who is the game's best with NSW's game-one hat-trick star Tom Trbojevic putting the heat on Cleary, the 2021 Dally M Medal leader when voting went behind closed doors recently.

While the first to admit he is far from objective, Luai said he rated Cleary as the best after the scheming No.7 hit "career-best form" following his gut-wrenching 2020 season finish and emerged as the NRL's best game manager.

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Asked if he backed Cleary over NSW teammate Trbojevic, Luai laughed: "Yeah, but I am a bit biased.

"He is king of the chess board at the moment, in career best form. But respect to both. They are different players, two of the best in the competition."

Ryan found it more difficult to separate the pair but dipped his hat to Cleary for bouncing back from his 2020 setbacks.

"I can't really split them but it's a good problem to have for NSW," he said.

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"I do think Cleary is a better player this year. Look at his club form after Origin - he has gone to another level for sure.

"His experience coming through that [losing grand final, Origin] has made him a better player. He would be confident of sealing the series."

Luai backed Cleary to step up again at Suncorp Stadium after Maroons prop Christian Welch told reporters this week he would be targeting the playmaker.

The Melbourne forward had successfully shut down Cleary in last year's grand final before repeating the feat in the Origin series.

"Nate is a half and every half is targeted every NRL game. It's not going to be any different on Sunday," Luai said.

Meanwhile, NSW have welcomed former skipper Boyd Cordner into their Kingscliff camp before driving into Brisbane on Friday.

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"It's mad, great for the culture," Luai said of Cordner, who looked on at Thursday's training after announcing his retirement last week.

"It's good to get around him and for him to be around us. All the boys still look up to him."

 

Origin II in Brisbane is sold out but tickets are still on sale for game three at Stadium Australia in Sydney on July 14 - get your tickets at NRL.com/tickets.