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.

2017 mid-season predictions

Now that we’ve reached the halfway mark of the season, it is time we took stock of the first 14 rounds of the Telstra premiership and began forecasting what is to come at the back-end of 2017.

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From the end of last year, a number of teams have surprised us by rising to unprecedented heights on the competition ladder. Manly stand out in my mind as the surprise packets of 2017. They currently sit in sixth position on the competition ladder with seven wins and five losses to their name, and have knocked off some of the competition heavyweights along the way.

The Dragons have also exceeded many expectations. Some critics believed this year would go down as one of the worst in the clubs history; a season spent waiting for knight in shining armor, Ben Hunt to arrive and cure their attacking woes. It has been anything but. They sit third on eighteen points and, unless they experience a remarkable form slump, have all but sewn up a spot in the finals. It seems highly unlikely though, given the majority of their last 12 games are against sides currently residing outside the top eight.

Melbourne have done exactly what we’ve come to expect from a Craig Bellamy coached side built around professionalism and discipline. They’ve punished bottom eight sides and fought tooth and bone for victory against the likes of Cronulla, Brisbane and Manly. Which leads perfectly into my first prediction:

Melbourne to win the premiership: 

This is a rather tame prediction given their current position on the ladder and their outstanding track record in the finals, but it is difficult to see them being overrun two years in a row. In last year’s grand final, they were far from their best and many would argue that the Sharks were more hungry for victory given the premiership drought the club had suffered through and the turbulence they faced off the field just years earlier. It might sound like I’m talking in cliches here, but their heartbreaking loss to the Sharks would only add fire to the bellies of Melbourne’s ageing veterans. And that desire will take them all the way this year.

Melbourne were the second best team in the competition last year without Billy Slater, the world’s number one fullback. Now that he has returned, the big three have reunited and already they are showing signs of replicating the magic they created in the prime of their careers. Against the Gold Coast in the double-header weekend at Suncorp Stadium, Slater, Smith and Cronk ran riot up the middle of the ruck, creating three (if I recall correctly) identical tries to stun the Titans and put on a considerable early lead. Of course, the Gold Coast returned to win that game 38 points to 36, but the line breaks that led to those tries couldn’t have been executed by any other players in the game.

The outside backs of the Melbourne Storm are what excites me the most about watching this side play. When Suliasi Vunivalu and Josh Addo-Carr are flying down the sideline, or taking a heat seeking missile from the boot of Cronk high above the opposition wingers, it is like watching the Harlem Globetrotters of the NRL in action; they pull off unbelievable try-scoring plays that you’d pay a pretty penny to watch on repeat. They are unstoppable at their best and showed against the Dragons that they are capable of blowing the opposition off the park early and hanging on for victory through unbreakable defense.

Only injury can weather the Storm.

Gold Coast to finish in the top eight:

They did it last year, much to the surprise of many punters, and have the ability to do it again in 2017. They sit 11th currently, four wins outside the top eight, but will make a resurgence late in the season to force their way into the finals.

Ashley Taylor has been at his sensational best, while Nathan Peats and Jarrod Wallace are in career best form. Jarryd Hayne is also returning to his best, even if he isn’t a shadow of his 2009 self, and if he can put in more performances like he did in Origin One, than there is no doubt the Gold Coast will be in the mix come September.

Mark my words, the Gold Coast are not as far from a premiership as many think. If they can keep Elgey, Taylor, Peats, Wallace, Hurrel, Roberts and James on the books, than they are capable of pulling a Cronulla by winning a premiership with a mixture of youthful exuberance and experience when nobody expects them to. The Sharks sneaked up on the competition last year and the Gold Coast will go under the radar in a similar fashion in seasons’ to come.

Sharks to set up a Grand Final re-match with Melbourne, Roosters to go close:

Speaking of the Sharks, they are my tip to make the grand final once again this year. It is uncanny how similar this season has been to last for the reigning premiers. They were clearly suffering from a premiership hangover early in the season, but have risen from the ashes to sit in 2nd position at the halfway point of 2017.

Many expected them to struggle without Barba and Ennis, and in some games – such as their clash with the Bulldogs two weeks ago – they have missed their attacking flair and ability to create something out of nothing, but are starting to play off the back of Fifita and Gallen and are reaping the rewards.

Much like last year, Lewis and Graham – two of the most underrated players in the competition – and their bench forwards, are key to the Sharks title defence. Second phase football and a fractured defensive line are where most of their points will come from and will allow Holmes, Maloney and Bird to attack from where they are most dangerous – long range with broken play.

The Roosters will go close, no doubt. But the Sharks have just a little bit more in the way of class.

Wests Tigers to beat the Newcastle Knights to the wooden spoon:

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I made this one a few weeks ago, and since watching them on the weekend against the Dragons, and the Knights against the Storm, I am starting to reconsider my choice. But I will stand by it. Not only are the Tigers one of the most boring sides to watch when Tedesco is not in possession of the ball, I’m struggling to see where their points are coming from? Lolohea is a great addition, and Littlejohn a young player with plenty of ball-playing potential, but other than that, watching them attempt to cross the line is like watching a poorly made soap-opera – it’s clunky, monotonous and will eventually put you to sleep.

Their defence is just as flat, and I’ll be surprised if the Roosters don’t rack up another 40 points, more than half of which will be scored on the wing, like they did against the Eels not that long ago.

Mark Round 17, Tigers v Knights, down in your diary as the battle for the wooden spoon.

As a side note, the Tigers play the Roosters and Manly twice before the end of the season, and their only real shot against a genuine bottom eight team is in Round 26 against the Warriors. Other than that, they take on top eight teams as well as those on the fringe, such as the Panthers and Titans, who will come home with a wet sail in the lead up to the 2017 finals series.

Panthers to narrowly miss out on the top eight: 

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It has been a tough year for the premiership favorites. They struggled through loss after loss across the first ten rounds of the competition but have got their mojo back in recent weeks, stringing together a number of wins to put their finals hopes back on track.

Matt Moylan has been moved to five-eighth; one of the finest positional changes in NRL history. Anthony Griffin has been heavily criticised this season, and duly so, but moving Moylan to five-eighth is a bold decision born out of courage and a desire to change his sides’ fortunes.

I believe he has the potential to become the next Darren Lockyer; already there are great similarities between their running styles.

While Moylan’s positional change will no doubt aid in the Panthers’ run towards the finals, giving them what they were missing in attack at times during the opening rounds, the early season losses will likely see them miss out on a top eight spot by a very narrow margin.

I’ve compiled a list of the club’s remaining fixtures and given each game a result. Overall, the Panthers miss out on the eight by two points to the Titans, who will accrue a total of 30 points.

(Panthers v Raiders – W; Cowboys v Panthers – L; Rabbitohs v Panthers – W; Panthers v Manly (Split Rnd) – W; Warriors v Panthers – L; Panthers v Titans – L; Panthers v Bulldogs – W; Panthers v Tigers – W; Panthers v Cowboys – L; Raiders v Panthers – W; Panthers v Dragons – W; Manly v Panthers – L.)

All they need to do is pick up one extra game that I’ve labelled as a loss and they will be on an even keel with the Gold Coast, making for and against the deciding factor for who goes through and who misses out.

If you’re interested in hearing my reasoning for any of the above results, please leave a comment below. 

As always, I expect there to be a few more unexpected results to throw my predictions off kilter and make me reassess my decision making. However, for arguments sake, my competition ladder at the completion of Round 26 reads as follows:

  1. Storm, 2. Broncos, 3. Sea Eagles, 4. Roosters, 5. Sharks, 6. Dragons, 7. Cowboys, 8. Titans

9. Panthers, 10. Eels, 11. Raiders, 12. Bulldogs, 13. Warriors, 14. Rabbitohs, 15. Knights, 16. Tigers.

Only Parramatta drop out of the top eight as it currently stands, the rest remain to battle it out in the finals.

As always, comments below.