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'Pulled their pants down': Johns hails Cleary brilliance, Gus calls it one of the all-time great halfback performances

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26th June, 2022
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Nathan Cleary was voted the man of the match in State of Origin Game 2 after an inspired performance for the Blues against the Queensland Maroons setting up a mouth-watering decider in Brisbane.

After Queensland won Game 1, the Blues needed someone to step up and Cleary brushed aside a disappointing Sydney outing and plenty of criticism in the media to show his prowess.

The Blues best ever Origin halfback, Andrew Johns, led the tributes after Cleary was the cornerstone of the 44-12 thumping.

“He was incredible tonight. What he is doing at his age as a halfback … there hasn’t been a halfback who has done that in Origin,” said Johns.

“His trajectory is going up and up. Some of these passes, his kicking, his running game, he is controlling the tempo of the game. He knows when to accelerate the team. It was a masterclass.

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“When he came into Origin, the only knock I had on Nathan was his creativity, playing within the structure, not taking risks. He is doing it now. He is playing like a halfback who has played at this level for 10 years. He had it on a string tonight. And to do it against the truly elite, he pulled their pants down so many times.”

Cleary set up the Blues first try of the night with a great grubber that found Matt Burton who also had an amazing game on debut.

Cleary scored two tries himself in the second half as the Blues ran riot.

His tally of 24 points for the match was the second-best effort by a NSW player in history behind Ryan Girdler.

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Perhaps more impressively, Cleary has now moved up to third for the most points for NSW in Origin with 84 points.

Only Andrew Johns (94) and Michael O’Connor (129) are ahead of him.

“Obviously we’re very happy, I’m just so stoked for Burto (Matt Burton) too, what a debut!” Cleary told the ABC.

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“We knew we had a job to do, just really happy with that. One to go now.”

Cleary addressed the criticism he received after a lacklustre first game.

“Not so much the criticism, more so the fact I knew I could be better, as a group we could be better,” he told Channel 9.

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“I just try and play my best for my family and teammates and the state we are representing. I’m very luckyand blessed to wear this jersey and now we have one more to go. Looking forward to that.”

“I think we can enjoy this, but we can’t be too pleased with ourselves. We have to keep working to be better. That was the statement from the last game. We have to be hungry and want it. There is one game to go. Tonight is great and we will enjoy this but there is still a job to do.”

Former State of Origin coach Phil Gould was another blown away by Cleary’s brilliance.

“His strengths were his running game, support game and kicking game and for a kid, he had great defence,” said Gould.

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“Halfbacks can struggle in that area. Nathan has never really struggled in defence. I think that second half tonight was one of the truly great halfback performances in Origin history.

“It ranks up there with the best of all time in what he did in that period. In the first half he was a little frantic and side to side and trying to find something and a grubber kick to Burton got a spark in him and all of a sudden he started to tear Queensland apart.

“The two plays I thought were terrific were the early kicks, the 40-20 down to the corner and the early chip kick down in this corner which got Ponga in goal and they scored from the line drop out.

“Then he got into rhythm, the over the top pass, the dummy, the show and go and he played off the back of good forwards. As the game went on, he got into another stratosphere.”

His captain James Tedesco said Cleary copped unfair criticism after Queensland’s win in game one.

“It shows what a champion player he is,” said Tedesco. “He comes out in game 2 and puts on a clinic with a lot of pressure on him. He is one hell of a player.”

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