Here’s a theory: if Nathan Cleary played for any other club, he wouldn’t have a single State of Origin game to his name.
There’s a distinct Panthers flavour to the NSW set-up under Brad Fittler, who made his first-grade debut for the club in 1989, at the tender age of 17.
One of his established teammates during his years at the foot of the mountains was halfback Greg Alexander.
Nowadays, Alexander is Fittler’s adviser for Origin – oh, and he’s deputy chair of the Panthers Group board of directors.
Then there’s Freddy’s coach for the majority of his years in Penrith. Phil Gould took the reins in 1990, and was in charge in 1991 when the club won their first premiership.
Gould left the Panthers for the bright lights of Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs in 1994, and by 1996 Fittler had joined him at the Roosters.
It would be fair to say no one has had a greater impact on Freddy’s career – both as a player and a coach – than the man they call Gus.
And it just so happens that Gould was general manager of the Panthers until the start of this year.
While not an official member of the NSW brains trust, it’s no secret that Gould has been a sounding board for Fittler during his tenure as Blues boss.
Nor has Gould been shy about the fact he was happy to talk up the young halfback at his club as being ready for Origin last season – on the condition Fittler “stick with him for a number of years”.
“Last year, when Freddy got to the point that he’s thinking, ‘I think we need Nathan Cleary, we need this fresh blood in our side’,” Gould said on Channel Nine’s 100% Footy earlier this year.
“My only comment was, ‘Well, if you’re going to pick him, you’ve got to stick with him for a number of years. Don’t expect the miracle early and don’t burn him like I’ve seen so many other young halfbacks burned, rushed in too early and thrown aside straight away. If you’re going to pick him, you’ve got to stick with him’.
“That was kind of a guarantee. So I don’t think there’s any doubt that Nathan Cleary will be in the side.”
Now, to be fair to Cleary, he was playing pretty well heading into the 2018 Origin series, so it’s not like his selection was unfair.
But would he have got a run in rugby league’s toughest arena as a 20-year-old had the coach’s official and unofficial advisers not been staff members at the Panthers? Put it like this, it’s far less likely.
Cleary’s debut series was vanilla. He didn’t do much wrong, but he didn’t do much of note either.
But the logic is you don’t change a winning team, so on that count, sure, Cleary was selected again for 2019.
Except his underwhelming 2018 Origin effort was covered up by the fact James Maloney – his halves partner at both NSW and Penrith – was one of the form players of last year’s series.
Penrith, however, were struggling as this season started and the argument went that you couldn’t pick both last year’s halves on form.
So who did the Blues dump? The bloke who is irrefutably the better representative player and has proven himself on the game’s biggest stage time and again.
Why? Because young Cleary has so much upside.
God I’m sick of hearing about upside. I’m on board when a club invests time in a young player on the understanding both parties will be richer for the experience a few years down the road, but rep footy isn’t about the future.
It’s about picking the players who can win you the game now.
I don’t doubt Cleary will be a far better player three, four years down the line as a result of his exposure to this high level of rugby league at such a young age.
It just that I don’t care about ‘down the road’. I want my team to win now, as should everyone in the NSW setup.
Gould’s stipulation with regards to picking Cleary was obviously influenced by the fact the kid was his club’s halfback. And Gus’ soft spot for a young man he helped mentor during his years as GM at Penrith is obviously colouring his ongoing, unwavering support for a player who has zero tries, zero try assists, zero line breaks and zero line-break assists to his name in four games for the Blues.
To say Cleary got the job done last year is disingenuous. The team got the job done – and he was part of the team – but by that logic Fittler should have picked the exact same 17 as Game 1 or 2 in 2018.
But Cleary was picked this year because there was a Penrith pact – don’t hurt our young bloke’s confidence, regardless of his form.
Success papered over the cracks last year, but it’s become manifestly obvious Cleary is not yet a representative player. He might get there, but until he does, it’s ridiculous for one of the most prized and pressured positions in the game to go to a player on the basis of potential and promises.
So if NSW lose tonight, someone else needs to wear the blue No.7 jumper in Sydney.
Because while it may be a dead rubber, the only way to plan for the future in Origin is to play in the present.