Origin is a special competition, from its unique nature fostered by a state duopoly on the NRL to the passion it ignites that is generally reserved for only the fiercest international sporting rivalries.
The ideal environment for Nathan Cleary to regain his former glory is a temporary change of coach and teammates. He will have that luxury leading into Game 1 of State of Origin to be played in just over a week’s time.
Nathan Cleary was always going to be a controversial selection. Along with his Panthers teammates he has been sadly out of form this season.
His game on the weekend in Penrith’s victory over local rivals Parramatta was arguably his best after scoring the try that made the difference and steering his side around the park with a bit more confidence.
Based on current form Adam Reynolds and Mitchell Pearce were way ahead of Cleary to clinch the Blues halfback position. The debate over Pearce became academic when he picked up an injury on the weekend.
Both Pearce (30 years old and 18 Origins) and Reynolds (28 years old and two Origins) have been there before.
Luke Keary who could have shifted to half was also ruled out with injury.
Last season’s Dally M halfback of the year Luke Brooks, who has been in the best form in of his career in 2019, was the other possible contender.
This is where the ‘pick and stick’ loyalty factor must come in. NSW have long been the butt of jokes and criticism from their opposition for not standing by their players when it comes to selection.
At 21 years of age Nathan Cleary deserved the opportunity to continue as NSW half after being an integral part of the first Blues series win since 2014. He also steered the Panthers to the semi-finals last season before they went down to Cronulla by one point.
Cleary is a quality player that will bounce back. The Blues selectors are investing in the future.
After the victory against Parramatta, his father and coach Ivan told the media that Nathan has been under a lot of pressure and scrutiny for the last six months going back to initial contract discussions.
The speculation and eventual signing of a multi-year deal made him the highest paid player in the Penrith squad. The pressure was exacerbated by his father returning to the club as head coach with accompanying expectations of taking the team to the next level.
It is too early to make an assessment but it may play out that having his father coaching him has unintentionally been a hindrance to Nathan Cleary’s playing career.
Penrith have had a nightmare season so far that started before a ball was kicked with off field incidents and it has continued with a string of losses and the recent resignation of club supremo Phil Gould.
The Panthers team seem distracted on the field and while Cleary’s form has not been up to standard, it is not helped by playing behind a forward pack that is being dominated by the opposition.
Following his selection Nathan Cleary told the media yesterday “Something I’ve been trying to deal with this year is just stopping the self-doubt coming in and getting out of a negative mindset, which is tough at times.”
Blues coach Brad Fittler’s unconventional coaching style may just be the tonic to turn Cleary’s form around. ‘Freddy’ moves to a different beat than others and let’s face it he couldn’t be a more different personality to Ivan.
After putting the squad through yoga poses, meditation, visualisation and walking around barefoot so their feet could absorb the earth’s minerals last series, he has called in a ‘self performance coach’ this year to run sessions that include lying on the bottom of a pool and holding your breath, which is designed to enhance breathing control and relaxation.
Fittler is very open to having media around the team asking questions and finding background stories. A change from Panthers coach Ivan who seems to barely tolerate the press after the Wests Tigers coaching speculation debacle emerged toward the end of last season.
While focussed on winning, Freddy has a naturally relaxed nature that permeates through the team and proved successful for NSW in 2018.
In a addition to being under Fittler during the Origin period, Cleary will work with different teammates and a new halves partner, the very much in-form Cody Walker.
Walker has scored 11 tries and come up with eight try assists so far this season so he will provide quality attacking options.
Cleary will be surrounded by quality players and will work with a forward pack that will be desperate to set a good platform against the Maroons. Props David Klemmer and Paul Vaughan are two of the best metre gainers in the NRL.
Cleary is also blessed to have the talents of Mitchell, Tedesco and Addo-Carr out wide to take advantage of his passing and excellent short kicking game.
The State of Origin training environment is perfect for Nathan to develop a positive mindset away from the pressure and issues that surround his Penrith club.
I’m backing him to break out of the shackles and return to being the quality player we saw last series and had Blues fans so excited.