Nathan Cleary really has no business having three State of Origin series on his CV.
He was picked for Game 1 in 2018 as a 20-year-old, a selection that was somewhat vindicated by a Blues series win, even if Cleary was very much the junior halves partner and victory was far more down to the efforts of James ‘Jimmy Wins’ Maloney.
Last year Cleary was again the first mate at a struggling Panthers outfit when he was selected to play the interstate series, with Maloney – still the captain of the Good Ship Penny, if not officially – paying the price for Penrith’s sluggish start, being dropped for Game 1.
NSW lost. Jimmy got recalled. Jimmy Wins. NSW won.
But while NSW won the two series in which Cleary played, his personal winning record across five games – he was out injured for Game 3 last year – was 3-2, which now stands at a dead-even 3-3.
Of bigger concern is that the Blues’ halfback has a grand total of zero tries, zero try assists, zero line breaks and zero line-break assists across those six matches.
Last Wednesday his fifth-tackle options were poor and he missed two critical – if admittedly difficult – goals.
He also had two missed tackles, which is worth highlighting because over the course of his six games, he’s averaging 2.83 missed tackles each time he pulls on a blue jersey.
Now, admittedly that average is inflated by the nine tackles he missed over the course of his first two games, but it’s finally time to judge Cleary on his entire representative career because for two years we have been asked to chalk average efforts up to him being a young man learning his trade.
Phil Gould has told the story over and over again of how Brad Fittler asked him in 2018 whether he thought Cleary was ready to play Origin and Gus said yes, provided Cleary was given plenty of time to grow into the jersey.
Ivan’s boy was to be stuck with – there would be no axe falling on his young head if he didn’t immediately aim up.
And it kind of made sense in 2018. I don’t agree with picking anyone in a rep side based on what they might one day become, but sure, if you’re going to give a 20-year-old a go, don’t immediately burn him.
It made less sense in 2019, which is why I wrote leading into Game 2, “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.”
Now, in 2020, it officially makes no sense. Cleary is very much steering the ship at the foot of the mountains now that Maloney has disembarked, and this season he led his club side to the grand final and came nail-bitingly close to winning the Dally M Medal.
All of which is to say Cleary’s no longer a boy who needs to be protected. He’s a man who needs to be held accountable.
Now, given the brilliance of his 2020 season, Cleary was an obvious selection for Origin 1. But after a sixth consecutive lacklustre performance, his place in the side should be under intense scrutiny.
Instead, Luke Keary has been dropped and Cleary promoted to vice-captain.
Like, seriously? Keary had an average game too, but why is it that Freddy acquiesces to Gus’ request that Cleary be treated as an endangered species, meanwhile both Keary and Cody Walker (after Game 1 last year) were immediately shown the door? Where’s their chance to grow?
No, they’re not as young as Cleary but they’ve both got many good years ahead of them. What’s more, both Keary and Walker have been in better touch at club level for longer than Cleary – in fact, on balance, Keary has been the form five-eighth of the comp for the last three years and has won a trio of premierships in his career, as well as a Clive Churchill Medal.
But one bad game from either of them and they’re out, while the repercussions for Cleary’s six substandard showings is the security blanket of a leadership position.
And it’s actually just an added blankie for the 22-year-old, who was all but assured of getting another full series as the NSW No.7 anyway after Freddy selected four five-eighths in his 27-man squad and just the one halfback.
Never mind that only having one recognised halfback is a bad idea in case Cleary went down injured, how about it’s a bad idea because there’s no back-up half to keep Cleary on his toes in case he, say, follows suit from every single one of his other Origin games and contributes a big old load of nothing to lead NSW to victory?
Why wasn’t, at a minimum, Adam Reynolds in the squad keeping Cleary honest? Particularly since it would have required Keary, Walker and Jack Wighton – possibly even Jake Trbojevic – to all go down injured before Jerome Luai got anywhere near the matchday 17.
Yes Keary can play halfback, but in rugby league’s toughest arena, having a second specialist in the most important position on the field – in a squad of 27 – is just common sense.
But common sense has gone out the window when it comes to Nathan Cleary wearing a blue jersey.
I know Cleary’s still young and I don’t expect him to play like Andrew Johns, even if, according to his official Origin profile, “he models his game off the Blues’ all-time best No.7”.
But while he doesn’t have to be Joey, he does need to stop being treated like a joey.
Cleary is a big boy now – the hint is that he’s got a ‘VC’ next to his name on the NSW teamsheet. The cover extended to him by Gus more than two years ago needs to be removed.
I’m not saying Cleary should be put on that infamous list of those who will never be selected again because they’re ‘not Origin players’.
But often the most important step on the path to sporting greatness is being dropped. Based on the fact he’s now played more Origin games than Keary, Walker and Reynolds combined – all of whom have suffered the ignominy of getting cut from the Blues – Nathan Cleary has reached that point.