Penalty crackdown should be encouraged, on one condition

If the NRL wishes to cure the penalty disease currently plaguing the game, referees mustn’t be afraid to use the sin-bin.

I applaud Matt Cecchin for sending Cameron Smith off for ten minutes on Friday night following the tirade of verbal abuse levelled at him and his assistant by the Melbourne Storm.

It was also pleasing to see James Tamou sent for a sit down on Thursday when the Penrith penalty count was beginning to get out of hand.

If the referees wish to continue blowing regular penalties they must persist with using the sin bin as a deterrent. Hopefully this will send a message to players and coaches that any slight infringement will not be tolerated.

For too many years now players have been coached to slow down the play-the-ball or give away a penalty close to the line to avoid conceding four points. This has led to several unattractive games and an increase in teams electing to kick a penalty goal rather than attempt a try-scoring play.

The catch-22 situation here is that the crackdown on these negative tactics by the referees has in itself stymied the natural flow of the game.

Anyone watching Friday night’s clash between Melbourne and Cronulla, whether at the ground or in front of their television sets, would’ve been left frustrated by the constant blowing of penalties.

They detracted from the spectacle and caused the game to become disjointed and unwatchable. There was no flow, no rhythm, and if you’re a casual fan of rugby league, I don’t blame you for changing the channel.

The NRL will know that it faces an uphill battle competing with the AFL, which continues to expand its reach into the eastern states.

The players are also aware that they are all members of the entertainment industry and that their performances – which influence the quality of the product they produce each weekend – determines whether fans will invest time and energy in supporting it.

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The NRL is not just competing with rival codes, of which there are many at this time of year, they are competing with the entire entertainment industry.

With the advent of streaming services such as Netflix, there are now several choices where there was once few and the battle for attention has heightened.

More and more fans will be lost to these alternative forms of entertainment if the game continues down the path it is headed.

But that doesn’t mean the referees should stop blowing penalties to avoid momentum-restricting stoppages, because if they are there to be given, they have no other choice.

It is important, however, the referees continue to show discretion in their decision-making, as fans will be turned away by the kind of nitpicking that gifts teams field position and, ultimately, victory.

This is the cause of as much frustration as the stoppages created by penalties. No fan wants to watch a game that is heavily influenced by the referees.

And yet the crackdown on negative play should be encouraged. If allowed to continue, it will, quite ironically, lead to a more polished and free-flowing game.

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Defensive units will stay back the required ten meters and allow the playmakers to run. Teams will abandon the wrestle tactic. The ruck will improve. Games will speed up and fatigue will start to play a factor again.

The NRL will look less like Super Rugby, with penalty goals kicked at will, and more like the game ardent followers fell in love with.

But if the increase in penalties is not met with an appropriate punishment, such as a stint in the sin bin for a member of a team that commits several offences, the NRL is in for a mass exodus led by disgruntled fans.

Another option is implementing a 5-minute sin-bin for any player that deliberately gives away a penalty close to their own line. This way referees will be more inclined to send a player off and teams will cease employing tactics that are likely to incur a penalty.

The risk in this method concerns that well discussed Rugby League phenomenon – the grey area – because it relies on referee discretion.

But if it helps rub out what is a blight on the game, even while raising the ire of coaches, then the NRL must consider it.

My guess is the referees will buckle under the weight of public opinion and the current crackdown will cease.

But if it does continue, is it too much to ask for the NRL to be proactive in managing it?

NRL must bring hammer down on salary cap cheats

Australian sport has been shaken to its very core this week. Much of this is due to the despicable actions of our cricketers in South Africa. As has been reported heavily over the past few days, Australian captain Steve Smith will miss the fourth and final test match of the series after being found guilty of contrary conduct by the ICC.

What is most jarring about this story is that the plan to change the condition of the ball was concocted behind closed doors, and involved the most sacred members of the playing group: its leaders.

During his time as Prime Minister, John Howard quipped that he had the second most important job in Australia. In the last week, this has proven to be the case. The Australian captain, it seems, is expected to uphold the standards and ideals we hold dear as a nation – even more so than those running the country. Fail us in any way and the emotional firestorm that follows will hit you like a ton of bricks.

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The pitchforks have come out for Smith faster than they might have done had Turnbull committed the political equivalent of ball tampering. But is all the hoo-hah warranted? After all, this isn’t the first time a cricketer has used a foreign object to change the condition of the ball. And if you listen to the game’s leading voices, the prevalence of ball tampering across all levels of the sport is higher than first thought. Even South African skipper Faf du Plessis has had a crack at scuffing up the ball to make it reverse swing.

The reason the Australians are being placed under heavy scrutiny from the public is partly because they expect more of their national heroes, and partly because it was a premeditated act.

So why then are we not applying the same heat to those at the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, who also engaged in premeditated cheating? Is it because they aren’t held in as high regard as Smith and his brigade of Baggy Green crusaders? Do Howard’s words – that Australian captaincy is the pinnacle of national leadership and those bestowed with this honour are the bearers of an unblemished moral compass – actually hold true?

There are many parallels that can be drawn between the two cases. Both were premeditated acts and both were committed with the intention of gaining an edge over their opposition. Both, quite stupidly I might add, were done under the watchful eye of each code’s respective governing bodies; one in front of the television cameras and the other under the constant surveillance of the integrity unit.

Where the cases begin to differ is on the severity of the punishments handed down and the outpouring of public disgust. Steve Smith has been given a one-match ban by the ICC but may never captain Australia again. Two Manly officials, Neil Bare and Joe Kelly, have received 12-month suspensions, yet the player managers, the players themselves, and the club at large, got off relatively scot-free.

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They are very different cases but at their core lies the same motivation. The Australian cricketers changed the condition of the ball to cheat their way to victory; Manly used undeclared TPA’s to lure players to the club with the aim of assembling a superior roster, therefore allowing them to win more games.

A statement NRL CEO Todd Greenberg made during yesterday’s press conference, where he detailed the findings of a nine-month-long salary cap investigation, sums up this point well: “Manly had a financial advantage in securing the services of players who may otherwise have gone to other clubs”.

Right, so why have competition points not been docked? Why have they only been fined $750,000, $250,000 of which will be suspended if the club makes appropriate governance changes, when the subjects of the two previous salary cap scandals had points stripped?

Sure, they’re currently cap compliant. That’s fine. But, as Greenberg himself acknowledges, other clubs “missed the opportunity to secure players because of Manly’s undisclosed deals”. Nothing can reverse this and a small fine isn’t going to provide any closure for opposition clubs. The Gold Coast certainly aren’t about to forgive them for missing out on signing Daly Cherry-Evans because they are playing with a reduced cap. The biggest backflip in NRL history occurred because Manly used third-party deals to cheat – that is the bottom line.

Clearly, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. I feel like a broken record writing something like this in a rugby league article because it seems to happen every second week, no matter the topic. Two salary cap scandals in three seasons shows that the NRL needs to take a hard line on those cheating the system.

If Steve Smith – a man many were comparing to Bradman not three months ago – is at risk of losing his spot in the national team over something like ball tampering, a harsher punishment should be handed down to those NRL clubs who choose to dance with the salary cap devil.

Both are blatant acts of cheating. And both should be treated accordingly to prevent future cases.

Is the hype surrounding Newcastle justified?

When you think of the Newcastle Knights, what comes to mind? If you’ve been following the team for any length of time, you’d probably be inclined to talk about the premiership the club won back in 1997, when Rugby League in Australia was in the grips of war, and again four years later, when one of the game’s greatest halfbacks helped the Knights defeat a highly fancied Parramatta side. If not these, you’d reminisce about the champion players that passed through the club during its glory days, Sunday afternoons spent at Hunter Stadium, the grand final parades, and the turbulence of the Tinkler era that brought with it so much uncertainty.

Things of late have begun to distort the image Newcastle once worked hard to build. Instead of talking about the supreme skills of Johns and Buderus, fans are lamenting the sorry state of a once famous and highly successful club that has lost its aura. Over the last five years Newcastle have won three spoons and failed to qualify for finals. Add to this that all three were won across the seasons of 2015, 2016 and 2017, and you begin to gauge exactly where the club currently stands.

2018 is filled with hope, though. For the first time in the last few years the Knights have a realistic chance of making the top eight. Mitchell Pearce, one of the most polarizing figures in NSW rugby league, joins the club from the Roosters – a side that knows what it takes to play finals football and does so routinely.

Even more exciting for Knights fans is the arrival of Kalyn Ponga. The young fullback may only have a handful of first-grade games under his belt, but he showed signs of great skill and maturity during his time at the Cowboys. The only question that remains now is whether he can deliver on the potential that the Knights saw in him when they sat down to table a deal. A contract worth in excess of a million dollars can often be more of a curse than a blessing for young players who arrive at a club with the expectation of helping deliver a premiership.

The Knights have also improved their depth through the signings of Tautau Moga, Connor Watson, Aidan Guerra, Chris Heighington, Slade Griffin, Jacob Lillyman and Herman Ese’ese. All are quality players who have been a part of highly successful clubs previously. And all will bring a bit of extra experience to the club that will help in the development of rising stars like the Saifiti brothers, Sione Mata’utia, Danny Levi and the powerful Mitch Barnett.

Take Heighington for example. Not two years ago he was a part of the Cronulla side that won the premiership. At the end of last year he came off the bench in the Rugby League World Cup final for England. Playing wise, Heighington’s days are numbered. But you sense he has been brought to the club for more than just what he can deliver on the playing field; his role is to nurture the young Knights forwards and help them realize what it takes to win a premiership.

This won’t be the season Newcastle go all the way – let’s get this straight. It mightn’t even be the year they make the top eight. But it is the beginning of a new era for the Knights. Their premiership window has been brought forward considerably thanks to the work of the management and coaching staff behind a successful off-season recruitment drive.

No longer is Newcastle merely there to make up the numbers. They’re a genuine threat. And I dare say a number of teams this season will fear coming up against them. Forget about easy beats. The Knights are an unknown quantity with a point to prove and for that reason they will cause a number of upsets this season.

This new look side can restore faith in the long-time fans that have begun to drift away from the Hunter and forget about the joy football can bring. They can rediscover the style of football that saw the Newcastle Knights become one of the most popular Australian sporting brands during the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

Johns and Buderus are now nothing more than a distant memory, but the mark they left on the club will withstand the test of time. We may never see the Knights return to the lofty heights set by these two ever again – certainly not for some time yet, anyway. But they, and many others, will be forever known as the architects of a club that inspired an entire generation of rugby league fans from a working-class town.

Growing up during the mid 2000’s, receiving my Rugby League education from Channel 9, much was said about the Newcastle Knights. They were the poster boys of the NRL and the most discussed side on television and in the newspapers. As a Dragons supporter, they were the one side you respected. That respect began to fade away shortly after Johns, Buderus, Gidley, Harragon and MacDougall retired.

I feel the club is on the cusp of returning to those good old days. If they do, the competition, and rugby league in general, will be better for it.

For the first time in a long time, Newcastle fans have a right to feel excited about the future.

Landmark moment for British game a glimpse into the future

The NRL might not be too concerned by Super League’s venture to its stomping ground this weekend, nor the fans worried about the potential ramifications of this historic visit. But there is more than meets the eye about Hull FC’s clash with Wigan at Wollongong on Saturday evening.

At first glance this game seems nothing more than a gimmick, a chance to keep the struggling English game from treading water. And what better way to do this than to take it to the only place in the world where Rugby League has a large presence in the media and isn’t hidden behind the exploits of Manchester City, or continually confused with its sister code?

When Australian fans settle in to watch what will be, in effect, a bit of pre-season entertainment viewed in lieu of any local action, they will surely wonder why the NRL haven’t yet played a game in the UK for competition points.

The simple answer is this: the NRL wouldn’t gain the same amount of exposure, nor attract the same attention from potential commercial investors, as the Super League will by bringing a game down under.

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This might just be the smartest move the RFL have ever made and it comes on the back of their expansion into Canada with the Toronto Wolfpack, who have progressed to the second tier of the Championship and already have their sights set on a Super League birth in the years to come.

The NRL, meanwhile, appear completely closed off to the idea of expansion. When Super Rugby team the Western Force were axed from the competition at the end of last year, the NRL refused to put plans in place for a Perth based club.

It would seem they are content with their presence in the eastern states and would rather let the AFL have free reign in the west.

The Super League isn’t afraid of expansion and experimentation, though. And why would they be when the competition can only grow from where it currently stands behind the more popular and successful English sports that are shielding it from the limelight.

If those plans for expansion involve Australia, particularly the regions currently uninhabited by Rugby League, then the NRL should watch its back.

This weekend appears as much an experiment as it does a test drive. If the Super League can’t escape from the shadow of England’s sporting colossuses, and grow the game to the point where clubs can afford to offer higher profile players big money, increase the salary cap, or implement a proper reserves league, it will have no choice but to look to one of the only places it is assured to make waves.

If that means invading Australia – Rugby League’s stronghold – and taking on the might of the NRL while it sleeps, then so be it. What is there to lose? Money? Perhaps, but when a competition is as cash-strapped as the Super League and some of its clubs are said to be, it might as well go looking for ways to buck the trend – and taking the odd game to Australia or implanting a team seems as viable an option as any other to increase revenue to the levels seen in the NRL.

If clubs can travel to Toronto, why not Perth, or Adelaide? The NRL doesn’t start till mid March so there is a small window where the Super League – now broadcast weekly on Fox League – will have the full attention of Rugby League fans in Australia. More overseas fixtures would also boost the price of television rights and prompt further competition between local and international broadcasters.

This weekend’s Super League fixture might appear a harmless exhibition game aimed at helping fund a comparatively weak competition by the NRL’s standards, but it could secretly be a bid for expansion, a brief glimpse at how the English game can profit from bringing more fixtures to Australia in future.

Cowboys return to the Promised Land without their ‘Messiah’

For the second time in three years, a Grand Final featuring two non-Sydney clubs will be played at the Olympic Stadium. What an utter embarrassment this is for the Sydney clubs who purport to own the game.

When Josh Dugan was busy burning bridges on social media and missing the team bus, Michael Morgan and his teammates were waiting silently behind the scenes, hoping the Dragons would self-implode and the Cowboys would fall into the finals.

The Dragons, who scored more tries than the Cowboys during the regular season, went on to lose to the Bulldogs in a game that had the hallmarks of final but featured two teams whose cultures were suffering the ill effects of a few self-important, overpaid prima-donnas.

The rest is history. The Cowboys made it through to the finals, defeated the defending premiers, the comeback kings, and the high flyers, and now find themselves in another Grand Final.

Their drought-breaking victory against the Broncos two years ago in the greatest Grand final of the modern era will go down as the finest in their history no matter what happens because Jonathan Thurston was finally crowned a premiership winner. But a win against the giants of the game would give many punters, not to mention rugby league fans, something to smile about.

The club’s culture is what has allowed them to achieve so much success over the past few years. There are few other teams in the competition that could make it through to the Grand Final from eighth position, and even fewer who could do it without two of the game’s greats.

When Jonathan Thurston and Matt Scott were ruled out for the entire season, few gave them a chance of moving within touching distance of the finals.

Then former Queensland Origin star Justin O’Neill went down with an elbow injury, and the Cowboys were all but written off.

What followed showed the unity of the club and the resilience of certain players that don’t receive the plaudits they deserve because they play in a side that is headlined by Thurston and fronted by enforcer Jason Taumalolo.

One of these underrated stars is Michael Morgan, who has gone from Thurston’s right hand man to dominant playmaker.

His performances in the finals series without the game’s greatest halfback have suddenly put Morgan within the top echelon of playmakers in the NRL. He has laid down a marker and asked the competition to chase him.

Nathan Cleary might be the best up and coming half in the competition, and Pearce a reliable playmaker at club level with all the talent but little to show for it, but neither has had to overcome the kind of adversity Morgan has this season.

Take one look at the rugby league forums, news sites and on social media and you will see that Morgan has gained a number of supporters across the finals series.

Kids suddenly want to be him, coaches lose sleep over him, and the remainder of the competition envies his ever-expanding skill set.

Many have said that Queensland’s Origin dynasty will die off once Thurston and Cronk depart, but Morgan has shown there is plenty of life in the Maroons when the current stars begin to get their retirement plans in order.

Perhaps the most fascinating battle this Sunday will be the one between the old firm – Cronk and Smith – and the next generation – Morgan and Te Maire Martin.

Cronk has played mentor to Morgan for several years, and has taught him the tricks of the Origin trade. Now he must find a way to shut him down.

Also key to the Cowboys success are Shaun Fensom, Te Maire Martin and 2015 Grand Final star Kyle Feldt.

There are several young halves in the competition that have had their names put up in lights, but Te Maire Martin is going about his work quietly yet effectively.

Then there is Fensom, who has had to work his way back to the top since falling out of favour with the Canberra Raiders.

Fensom spent much of last season in reserve grade but Green, like he does so often, took a punt on him and his investment is now paying dividends.

Think about the number of players Green has pulled from relative obscurity to fill a void in the Cowboys line-up. There’s Granville, who Green coached at Wynnum Manly and brought across to the Cowboys from Brisbane after just 10 first grade appearances; Coeen Hess, who they signed on a whim after a successful U/18’s campaign for the Townsville Stingers; and, of course, Michael Morgan, who is another local product that Green has turned into a million dollar half since taking the reigns.

Somehow, Green has been able to change some of these bits and pieces players into premiership winners and—perhaps more importantly—a single, united team rather than a team of individuals who are more concerned about their own public image than they are their club.

Many clubs go in search of marquee players with over 100 games of first-grade experience to deliver them a premiership. The Cowboys policy, with Green as head coach, has been to bring fringe first graders to the club that other teams wouldn’t take a second look at, and mould them into hard-working footballers that buy into the culture created by Thurston et al.

The Roosters and South Sydney have won premierships at some point over the last five-years by bringing superstars like Sonny-Bill Williams and Sam Burgess to the club. The tradeoff is that when these players depart, they are left with a hole in the salary cap that they must fill with undeveloped players who haven’t been nurtured by the club and mentored by its forefathers.

The Bulldogs are going in search of a premiership next year by using the very same approach, and it might pay off in the future, but when they all depart at once, the club will be left in dire straights. Young players will be thrown into the deep end without knowing what it takes to deal with the hustle and bustle of the NRL.

The Cowboys have been in two deciders in the last three years with only two genuine superstars on their list. The rest have been taught to play for the spirit of the jumper and the loyal fans living in the North of Queensland.

If they play at anywhere below their best on Sunday night, the Storm will carve them up like a Christmas turkey. If they show the fight that has been drummed into them, then they will really fulfil their ‘giant killers’ tag.

NRL Team of the year – as voted by the writers at Nothing But League

The Nothing But League writing team has put their heads together to come up with the nine best players of the 2017 NRL season.

Their selections are as follows:

Fullback:

Tom Trbojevic – three votes/ Billy Slater three votes

Michael Gordon – one vote

If ever there was a player that embodied the lyrics in Chumbawumba’s smash hit I get knocked down, it is Billy Slater. Since returning in round three, Slater has added another notch to his belt, winning his ninth Origin series, and is about to embark on another NRL finals campaign. One more premiership would be a fitting reward for Slater’s resilience and mental resolve.

Many were surprised to see Trbojevic go without an Origin jumper in 2017, but the young Manly number one hasn’t let that phase him. He has played a crucial role in Manly’s journey to the finals and has put on a show at times during the season. Not only is he a try-scoring machine, his defence has improved markedly and it has made all the difference at the back for Manly.

As reward for his efforts, he is the joint winner of NBL’s fullback of the year.

Winger:

Suliasi Vunivalu – four votes

Jordan Rapana – two votes

Alex Johnston and Nick Cotric – one vote each

Most of what Suli does on the field belongs under a big top. But that’s why we love him. In full flight he is poetry in motion; when scoring a try he defies gravity. His fly kick against the Roosters might go down as one of the most bizarre incidents in rugby league history, but it is unpredictable moments like these, and his remarkable strength, that has pushed him over the line as NBL’s winger of the year.

Centre:

Will Chambers – three votes/ James Roberts – three votes

Dylan Walker – two votes

The writers here at NBL simply couldn’t split Roberts and Chambers, with both earning three votes to finish equal first. James Roberts has been perhaps the most frustrating player in the competition this season. At times he dazzles; at others he looks out of ideas. It is his best performances that have caught the eye of NBL’s team of writers. The speed he posses has put him in contention for Origin selection, and there can be no higher praise than that.

If there is a player in the NRL that is more consistent than Will Chambers, I’d like to hear about them. His name might not be put up in lights like the Cronks and Smiths of the world, but he rarely fails to get the job done. Not only does he earn the top gong for wingers, he wins the award for the most dependable player in the NRL.

Five-Eight:

Luke Keary – four votes

Michael Morgan – two votes

Anthony Milford and Gareth Widdop – one vote each

Luke Keary is another player who rarely receives the plaudits he deserves. When Pearce was playing for NSW, Keary took full control of the side and earned the Roosters some crucial victories during a typically treacherous Origin period.

Taking out NBL’s five-eight of the year in his first season as a full-time number six is reward for perseverance. The Bunnies will be licking their wounds and questioning why they didn’t identify his talent and keep him on board.

The Roosters can thank Keary for their current standing on the ladder.

Halfback:

Cooper Cronk – three votes

Nathan Cleary – two votes

Michael Morgan – two votes

Daly Cherry-Evans – one vote

No surprises here, Cronk has taken out NBL’s halfback of the year award. The 2016 Dally M Medalist has had another sterling year, and, like a fine wine, is getting better with age. No one quite knows where Cronk will end up next year, but one thing is for certain – the NRL won’t be the same without him or his professionalism.

Nathan Cleary also earned a respectable two votes from our writers and this comes as no surprise when you look at what he has done for Penrith this year. Like I said in last week’s column, we might just have another Darren Lockyer on our hands. Get your checkbooks out Penrith, this young gun is worth his weight in gold.

Prop:

Paul Vaughan – six votes

Jarrod Wallace and Jesse Bromwich – one vote each

The man that polarized many rugby league critics around the start of this year’s Origin series has won NBL’s prop of the year by an overwhelming majority. Vaughan earned six votes from our writers, the second most in any position.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he is given the call up to next year’s Origin series. This man is simply too powerful to leave out. Not only has he improved the Dragons go forward, he has become as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar when defending the line. Fingers crossed he plays out the entirety of next year without sustaining an injury, because the Dragons are better for it.

Hooker:

Cameron Smith – seven votes

Unsurprisingly, the writers were unanimous in selecting Cameron Smith as the NRL’s hooker of the year. There isn’t too much you can say about Smith that hasn’t already been said; he might just be the finest player in the history of the game. Another big finals series lies ahead for the man who currently holds the record for most representative caps. Will he take Melbourne to another premiership? Or will they stumble at the final hurdle much like they did in 2016?

Second Rower:

Matt Gillett – three votes

Angus Crichton – two votes

Simon Mannering and Boyd Cordner – one vote each

Matt Gillett has continued his dominance at second-row for Brisbane and is set for another action packed finals series that will see him take on greater responsibility. There is no doubt Gillett is one of the best forwards in the game; he is a workhorse that will make over 30 tackles and 100 run meters as a bare minimum.

Matt Gillett has continued his dominance at second-row for Brisbane and is set for another action packed finals series that will see him take on greater responsibility. There is no doubt Gillett is one of the best forwards in the game; he is a workhorse that will make over 30 tackles and 100 run meters as a bare minimum.

As reward for another consistent season, our writers have voted him in as the second-rower of the year.

Lock:

Jason Taumalolo – five votes

Nathan Brown, Jake Trbojevic and Jack De Belin – one vote each.

Powerful, tough, resilient; there aren’t enough superlatives in the English language to describe this man. He has shown throughout the 2017 season why he remains the game’s premier lock forward. I put Taumalolo in the Glenn Lazarus category, because much like the brick with eyes, he is difficult to tackle and remarkably elusive for a big man. If he ends his career with a premiership record as half as impressive as Lazarus, we are in for one hell of a ride. The Cowboys will be hoping he doesn’t hop between teams like the former prop turned MP.

The rise and rise of Panthers’ young gun Nathan Cleary

When a team goes on a seven game winning streak it is usually the spine that deserves the lion’s share of the praise.

This is certainly the case at Penrith, where Nathan Cleary – tipped to take the reigns from Mitchell Pearce as NSW halfback in 2018 – has guided his team to the top eight despite a slow start to the season that had many fans questioning whether the tide would ever turn.

Cleary is currently the NRL’s leading point scorer, having racked up 206 points in 22 games.

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Nathan Cleary in full flight – Picture: NSWRL

To put this into perspective, he is 27 points ahead of the next highest point scorer Gareth Widdop, and a whopping 116 in front of exciting young halfback Ashley Taylor, who many regard as the best young half in the competition.

Perhaps more impressive is the fact that he became the youngest player to reach 200 points in a premiership season on Sunday against the Raiders, and is within the top ten point-scorers at the Panthers already.

But a good halfback shouldn’t be judged on stats alone.

Cooper Cronk won the Dally M Medal last year because of the impact he had on every game he was involved in.

Much like Cronk at the Storm over the years, Cleary has played a starring role in Penrith’s victories and their late season resurgence.

There is no better example of this then when Cleary single-handedly pulled his side off the canvas against the Warriors in round 19.

With their season on the line and down 22 points to 18, Cleary scored a brace of tries to win the game and send the Panthers down the road to finals football.

They haven’t lost a game since.

Few playmakers have this kind of influence on a game, and even fewer have as much control over a side as Cleary.

When Matt Moylan was absent with injury, Cleary became the dominant playmaker and the side has looked a more polished and dynamic outfit ever since.

Compared to other players of a similar age, Cleary’s performances have been far superior.

This includes young guns like Ash Taylor, Anthony Milford, Mitchell Moses and Cooper Cronk’s clone Brodie Croft.

He has shown wisdom beyond his years in salvaging what was at one stage a lost cause for the Panthers.

It makes you wonder just where he ranks amongst the greatest halfbacks of the last decade, and where he might rank come the end of his career.

If Jonathan Thurston is the benchmark, and Andrew Johns a close second, then Cleary must be in the hunt to scale past the heights reached by Darren Lockyer during his 355 game career.

At just 19, Cleary has shown that he is capable of doing what Thurston does instinctively and what Johns made a career out of – running the ball at the line, basing his football around a strong kicking game, and taking complete control of the match during clutch moments.

Most importantly, he is as tough as old leather and has shown his mental resolve to be up to the rigors of first grade football, no matter the pressure of the situation put in front of him.

If he is capable of such brilliance after just two seasons in the top grade, god only knows where he will end up.

Premiership winner? Dally M Medalist? All time leading points scorer? Immortal?

It is far too early to judge if Cleary will be held in such high esteem. And it is easy to fall into the trap of hyping up a young half only for them to fade into oblivion a few years later.

The NRL has proven too much for many a talented youngster in the past; they set the U20’s alight and expect this form to continue as they make the transition into first grade, but soon find it difficult to cope in a dog-eat-dog world.

Todd Carney debuted for Canberra at age 17 but quickly fell in with the wrong crowd and is now fighting tooth and bone to make ends meat in the Super League.

Kane Elgey is another example of a young player bursting onto the scene only to pick up an injury and return a lesser player.

And who can forget players like Chris Sandow and Tim Smith who came and went quicker than Kevin Rudd during his second term as Prime Minister.

There are many other cases of young players failing on the field or finding trouble off it, but Cleary doesn’t seem like the kind of player that would let his talent go to waste.

The Panthers are expected to table an offer that would see Cleary remain at the club until 2024.

If Ben Hunt is worth $1.2 million, then it’s hard to see Cleary going for anything less.

The only thing that isn’t running in his favour is that he doesn’t yet have the runs on the board. He has been instrumental in his side’s late season surge, but hasn’t been in a successful finals series or a winning Grand Final.

If things continue the way they are, this could soon change.

Between Cleary and Munster, the future of the NRL looks bright.