Cleary Ready to Lead Blues Into New Era
When Nathan Cleary makes his Holden State of Origin debut next Wednesday night at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, it will be just over two years to the day since he made his NRL debut back in 2016.
And such is the magnitude of his extraordinary rise to stardom that it's hard to fathom he's played less than 50 first-grade games – which is even more telling of his unwavering potential that's given him a seamless transition into one of rugby league's premier halfbacks.
But when Cleary injured his knee in the Panthers loss to the Bulldogs in Round Three, there was an immediate shadow of uncertainty surrounding his chances of earning his first-ever Brydens Lawyers NSW Blues Origin jersey.
But while his tenacity on the field is one of his most admirable qualities, it's his perseverance off the field that has helped through one of the toughest times of his young career.
"When I got injured I was shattered and I really thought there was no hope for Origin," Cleary told NSWRL.com.au
"A couple of times through rehab I was waiting to see the light at the end of the tunnel and I was lucky my injury wasn't too bad.
"There's a lot of people with worse injuries than what I had, and I just had to see the positives and work hard to get back.
"But luckily enough I was able to come back early and get two good games under my belt and now to be picked – I'm over the moon."
Despite playing a starring role in the Panthers dominant victory over the Dragons on Saturday night, Cleary's inclusion in the Blues squad was far from certain.
But after waiting all Sunday to receive the news of his selection, and seven gruelling weeks to get back on the field to prove to coach Brad Fittler he was ready – it was the moment he received the phone call where he could finally relish the hard-work and sacrifice it's taken to earn his NSW debut.
"I was sitting on the lounge and I was just waiting for the call all day and it didn't come until seven o'clock and I saw Brandy's phone number pop up,' he said.
"My palms went sweaty straight away and then I answered it, [and it] was short and sweet and he just told me I'm the Blues Halfback."
"I didn't know what to say and my parents were out at the time...I waited it out and they said 'have you heard anything, and I said 'yeah I'm in' and it was a pretty cool feeling."
While few would question whether Cleary is ready to take the reins in the pinnacle arena of rugby league, there's no doubting that the 20-year-old prodigy has the ability and temperament to lead NSW into a new era.
"I kind of have to [be ready] – with the Number Seven on your back you need to control the team and direct them around the park,' he said.
"I'll do everything I can to put my best performance forward and lead these boys to a victory.
"After being a fan for so long and really wearing my heart on my sleeve when I watch New South Wales, it helps coming into the series because you know how much a win would mean to the fans so it would be amazing"