TEENAGE halfback Nathan Cleary has dominated the headlines this week after it emerged Penrith were making moves to tie the cool-headed kid up until 2024.
Declaring to The Daily Telegraph that Cleary could be the “Johnathan Thurston of Penrith”, Panthers Group chief executive Brian Fletcher revealed he’s started talks with the 19-year-old’s management to add a further five years to his current deal, which isn’t due to expire until the end of 2019.
At $3 million over five years, the proposed contract is lucrative, although it would still be viewed as a bargain by many clubs who are eyeing up a No.7 with the potential to be the NRL’s next great playmaker.
It’s a stunning thought after just 34 first grade games, but such has been his impact Cleary already looks a bankable long-term halfback at a time when elite playmakers are worth their weight in gold.
Cleary would be aware of the hype but you wouldn’t know it given his humble, calm and mature demeanour.
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That’s no front according to Penrith great Greg Alexander, who not only sits on the Panthers board but has also become involved as a halves coach for the club, with a focus on kicking games.
“What you’d see of Nathan Cleary and how you’d think Nathan Cleary would be as a player and a person is exactly that,” Alexander told foxsports.com.au.
“What you see on the field is what he’s like on the training field. Very diligent, very composed for a 19-year-old, very mature for a 19-year-old.
“He thinks hard about the game, he’s very conscious of trying to perfect parts of his game that he needs to work on.”
And then there’s that remarkable torpedo bomb.
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Alexander won’t take credit for Cleary’s trademark and one of the most potent kicking weapons in the competition, deferring to the young gun’s prodigious talent.
The premiership halfback has been blown away by the skills possessed by the latest player to wear the No.7 jersey he made famous but it’s between the ears where Cleary has impressed most.
“That’s what Nathan’s good at, at not panicking in a situation of pressure,” Alexander said.
“He can change his mind if he needs to and that gets better when you become more experienced and you play more football — but he’s very talented.
“Whatever he thinks about and whatever kick that he thinks might be required for the weekend, it doesn’t take him long to perfect it.
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“There’s some players in the comp who can do the odd sort of floating bomb, but he’s been able to perfect it really. That’s just another weapon Nathan’s got.”
Another aspect of Cleary’s game that has impressed is his decision making — it has repeatedly been said that he doesn’t pass pressure on to his teammates. If a tough run is needed to steady the set, he’ll take it.
That’s a component of a halfback’s game that doesn’t often appear in the early stages of their first grade career and it played an important role in Penrith’s late charge up the ladder and into the finals last season.
For that same reason, the Panthers were listed among the premiership favourites to start this season and Alexander says that expectation grew into complacency among the players.
“I just don’t think they were ready for the start of the season,” Alexander said.
“They worked hard in the offseason but there was always that thought that we could win a comp this year and I think they might have gone into this season not prepared to do what they needed to do to win football games.
“It’s a cliche but one week at a time, let’s not think about what might happen in September in February.
“I think they probably got ahead of themselves a little bit but I don’t think anyone in the club had any doubt that they would find their way at some stage. We’re just hoping now that they’ve found their way and it’s not too late.”
With Cleary in form and Matt Moylan’s switch into the halves starting to take shape the Panthers are now looking specials to not only make the eight but make it with a bullet.
Even if they only manage to climb as high as seventh or eighth on the ladder, Alexander says it’s not beyond the side to carry their momentum all the way to the first Sunday in October.
“It would be a huge thing for them to win the title from seventh or eighth,” Alexander said.
“But if they keep all their players on the field, it’s not impossible and I think at the moment Melbourne are standouts and there’s a battle for who meets Melbourne in the grand final.
“With five weeks to go that seems the most likely scenario. You get in the eight and I think any one of those other seven teams could do the job on their day.”