Nathan Cleary simply laughs when comparisons are made between his heroics in last year’s Origin II win that ensured NSW retained the shield and Johnathan Thurston’s match winning feats with his right arm hanging by his side to keep Queensland’s hopes alive in the 2017 series.
Yet both had to play through the pain of a dislocated shoulder for most of the match to steer their team to victory and while the Blues were criticised for not running at Thurston in the second half before his sideline conversion on fulltime to snatch an 18-16 win, the Maroons targeted Cleary.
The Penrith and NSW halfback made 20 tackles, ran with the ball on 16 occasions, gained 484 metres with kicks and landed five goals as the Blues romped to a 26-0 win at Suncorp Stadium.
Telstra Tracker: Johnathan Thurston 2017
“I missed plenty of tackles too,” Cleary said. “It is just what you do, you grow up watching Origin and you see how tough the players are. That is what it is built on. I just didn’t want to let the team down and I knew I could do a good enough job.”
“I had never had a shoulder injury before but when it happened I knew something wasn’t right.
“It just felt horrible, but I was able to get through the game and then obviously after the game the physio sent me for scans, and it was worse than I thought.”
How Cleary outsmarted Maroons with dodgy shoulder
Cleary missed six matches before returning to help steer the Panthers to grand final glory against South Sydney and then underwent a shoulder operation that sidelined him for the first three rounds of this season.
He has played nine matches since his return and is arguably the NRL’s form halfback, with the Origin duel between Cleary and Queensland halfback Daly Cherry-Evans set to have an influence on who wears the Kangaroos No.7 jersey to the end of the season World Cup in England.
“It would be nice, but it is obviously a long way away,” Cleary said of his Test prospects. “You always want to play well in Origin to help the team win so if that can help me at the end of the year that would be good.”
With Penrith five-eighth Jarome Luia and lock Isaah Yeo playing alongside Cleary, the Blues are expected to adopt much of the attacking style of the premiers.
Yeo’s transition into the best ball playing forward in the game has changed the role of the lock and ultimately cost Jake Trbojevic his Origin spot as Blues coach Brad Fittler could not justify having the Manly star and South Sydney captain Cameron Murray in the side, as well as Yeo.
“Yeoie is amazing, I definitely count him as part of the spine,” Cleary said. “He has got a real footy brain about him and helps me out.
“It is pretty crazy. I think three years ago he was just playing backrow and he probably didn’t get his hands on the ball as much as he could have. He obviously got moved into the middle and it just unlocked his ball playing ability.
“He has always been skilful. I think he played a City-Country Origin game on the wing, so he has always just been a footy player who knows what he is doing and has those footy smarts. Now he has the confidence to actually talk about it and speak up.”
At the Panthers, Cleary said Yeo was the “dad of the group”, particularly compared the fun loving Luai but the combination the trio have is unmatched in the NRL.
“Honestly, they are complete opposites, but one of the things I like about the Penrith culture is that there are so many differing personalities and when everyone is together, we all get along and there are no egos,” Cleary said.