Boyd Cordner has been retained as captain in a Kangaroos merit team that features emerging NRL premiership-winning stars Tino Fa’asumaleaui and Ryan Papenhuyzen.
Andrew Johns wanted Nathan Cleary to be dropped after State of Origin I, but says his kicking in NSW’s win at ANZ Stadium was the best he’s seen from a Blue.
Cleary was superb in the Blues’ 34-10 flogging of Queensland, regularly kicking early and deep while utilising the speed of Josh Addo-Carr.
He finished with two forced dropouts and a 40-20, as the Penrith half was happy to kick early in the count to turn Queensland around.
It paid off, with a ridiculous 77 per cent of the ball being played in Queensland’s half, while the Blues also enjoyed 65 per cent of possession.
And it couldn’t have come at a better time for the 22-year-old man of the match.
Just a week ago, Johns was among those calling for him to be sacked, after a lacklustre performance in the Blues’ loss in Adelaide.
But after the series-saving win in Sydney set up a decider at Suncorp Stadium next week, NSW’s greatest-ever half was among those to admit Cleary had his critics eating their words.
“Under pressure this week, would have felt the pressure, but stood up and answered all his critics,” Johns told Nine.
“I thought his kicking game was the best I’ve seen from a NSW half in all my time watching footy.
“The early kicks, the courage to kick early and back himself and not only once or twice, but three or four times, he did it.
“He just stood up and he made a lot of people eat their words and really proud of the way he played tonight.”
Cleary’s kicking game had been his strength for Penrith this year, kicking more metres and 40-20s than any other player in the competition.
His kicks were crucial before two tries on Wednesday night, while he also threw the last pass for Cody Walker and James Tedesco four-pointers early.
“He was pretty good, his kicking was good,” coach Brad Fittler said.
“He made an error early where (Cameron) Munster caught it in goals and they scored off the back of that.
“But he was faultless for the rest of the game.”
Cleary’s return to form would also have been vindication for Fittler, whose tactics were called into question for the first time in his tenure over the past week.
Clint Gutherson also looked more settled playing out of position at centre in a call others had questioned, while Jack Wighton still had some defensive misses but scored a try on the other edge.
“We don’t listen to the outside very much. If we do, it’s the people we respect,” Fittler said.
“We’ve got good staff here as well.
“We’re not ignorant. Some people might know better than us.
“But the decisions we made we felt very comfortable with. They were made early in the week.”