When a team goes on a seven game winning streak it is usually the spine that deserves the lion’s share of the praise.
This is certainly the case at Penrith, where Nathan Cleary – tipped to take the reigns from Mitchell Pearce as NSW halfback in 2018 – has guided his team to the top eight despite a slow start to the season that had many fans questioning whether the tide would ever turn.
Cleary is currently the NRL’s leading point scorer, having racked up 206 points in 22 games.
To put this into perspective, he is 27 points ahead of the next highest point scorer Gareth Widdop, and a whopping 116 in front of exciting young halfback Ashley Taylor, who many regard as the best young half in the competition.
Perhaps more impressive is the fact that he became the youngest player to reach 200 points in a premiership season on Sunday against the Raiders, and is within the top ten point-scorers at the Panthers already.
But a good halfback shouldn’t be judged on stats alone.
Cooper Cronk won the Dally M Medal last year because of the impact he had on every game he was involved in.
Much like Cronk at the Storm over the years, Cleary has played a starring role in Penrith’s victories and their late season resurgence.
There is no better example of this than when Cleary single-handedly pulled his side off the canvas against the Warriors in round 19.
With their season on the line and down 22 points to 18, Cleary scored a brace of tries to win the game and send the Panthers down the road to finals football.
They haven’t lost a game since.
Few playmakers have this kind of influence on a game, and even fewer have as much control over a side as Cleary.
When Matt Moylan was absent with injury, Cleary became the dominant playmaker and the side has looked a more polished and dynamic outfit ever since.
Compared to other players of a similar age, Cleary’s performances have been far superior.
This includes young guns like Ash Taylor, Anthony Milford, Mitchell Moses and Cooper Cronk’s clone Brodie Croft.
He has shown wisdom beyond his years in salvaging what was at one stage a lost cause for the Panthers.
It makes you wonder just where he ranks amongst the greatest halfbacks of the last decade, and where he might rank come the end of his career.
If Jonathan Thurston is the benchmark, and Andrew Johns a close second, then Cleary must be in the hunt to scale past the heights reached by Darren Lockyer during his 355 game career.
At just 19, Cleary has shown that he is capable of doing what Thurston does instinctively and what Johns made a career out of – running the ball at the line, basing his football around a strong kicking game, and taking complete control of the match during clutch moments.
Most importantly, he is as tough as old leather and has shown his mental resolve to be up to the rigors of first-grade football, no matter the situation.
If he is capable of such brilliance after just two seasons in the top grade, God only knows where he will end up.
Premiership winner? Dally M Medalist? All time leading points scorer? Immortal?
It is far too early to judge if Cleary will be held in such high esteem. And it is easy to fall into the trap of hyping up a young half only for them to fade into oblivion a few years later.
The NRL has proven too much for many a talented youngster in the past; they set the U20’s alight and expect this form to continue as they make the transition into first grade, but soon find it difficult to cope in a dog-eat-dog world.
Todd Carney debuted for Canberra at age 17 but quickly fell in with the wrong crowd and is now fighting tooth and bone to make ends meet in the Super League.
Kane Elgey is another example of a young player bursting onto the scene only to pick up an injury and return a lesser player.
And who can forget players like Chris Sandow and Tim Smith who came and went quicker than Kevin Rudd during his second term as Prime Minister.
There are many other cases of young players failing on the field or finding trouble off it, but Cleary doesn’t seem like the kind of player that would let his talent go to waste.
The Panthers are expected to table an offer that would see Cleary remain at the club until 2024.
If Ben Hunt is worth $1.2 million, he shouldn’t go for anything less.
The only thing that isn’t running in his favour is that he doesn’t yet have the runs on the board. He has been instrumental in his side’s late season surge but hasn’t been in a successful finals series or a winning Grand Final.
If things continue the way they are, this could soon change.
Between Cleary and Munster, the future of the NRL looks bright.
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