Why is Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary so good – and how can the Eels stop him?

Nathan Cleary is the best halfback in the competition, and there’s a genuine case to be made for him being the best player in the competition.

At just 24 years of age, Cleary already has numerous Origin series wins to his name, two minor premierships and one premiership with the Panthers.

On Sunday night against the Eels, he will be looking to grab his second premiership ring and cement his legacy before his 25th birthday. 

The halfback is a lock to travel to the UK in two weeks for the Rugby League World Cup, and may even nab the starting No.7 jumper from Daly Cherry-Evans.

But what makes him so good?

Look beyond the 17 forced dropouts and 17 try assists in just 16 games this year, or the 90-odd run metres per game, or the towering bombs that cause headaches for opposition wingers and fullbacks.

Cleary has been compared to the likes of Andrew Johns, Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk – the three great halfbacks of the modern era – and some even believe he is on track to surpass them.

Speaking on NRL 360 on Monday night, Cronk delved into Cleary’s game and why the champion halfback is so important to the Panthers. 

Is Cleary better than Joey, JT and Cronk? 

Cronk won premierships at both the Storm and Roosters and was an integral part of Queensland’s dominance in the State of Origin arena, while Johns and Thurston both had stellar careers that included two premierships and countless big moments at rep level. 

But according to Cronk, the Penrith playmaker has already surpassed where his career was at the same age.

“I can’t speak on behalf of Joey, but absolutely he is streets ahead of me,” Cronk said.

“I think he’s got the physical skills – the kicking game, the passing game – but the maturity and composure, the temperament in big moments, is a huge thing.

“He studies the opposition within an inch of his life and he’s got the skills to back it up with the execution.

“The ability to galvanise his team and come up with a big play, I think there’s no real ceiling on what Nathan can do.

“Right now, I absolutely agree – he is one of the best players and trajectory-wise, he could just about achieve anything.”

The perfect balance

In the modern game, where everything is so structured, a player like Cleary is so important.

Penrith’s main man can execute a game plan better than anybody, but it’s his ability to play off the cuff and create something out of nothing that makes him the complete package.

“There’s this argument about manufactured and robotic vs ad-lib, and the best-case scenario sits in the middle of it,” Cronk said.

“I think Nathan knows what he is about to do before he does it, because he knows the cues from the opposition.

“I think he studies the opposition. He knows what they do and their tendencies, but he has also got this combination of 10,000 hours of multiple repetitions with all those players around him.

“He’s played a lifetime with Luai, Dylan Edwards has been in the system – I think the fact that all adds together is the reason why he can do it.”

Does Cleary own the big moments?

While he does have some success at Origin level, there has been some criticism over Cleary’s performances for NSW in both the 2020 and 2022 series. 

Cronk however shut down any notion that Cleary can’t own the big moments. 

“At different times, he’s been questioned at Origin level – he doesn’t have the same plays,” he said.

“But he has responded in different occasions when his back is against the wall. He has got it in spades.”

Can Cleary be stopped?

There is no real blueprint for stopping a player like Nathan Cleary. 

Parramatta struggled to contain the halfback back in the first week of the finals, but Cronk has highlighted one area that they can improve on regarding the opposition superstar.

“You need to shut down Nathan Cleary…with their starting front-row rotation in Week 1 of the finals, Nathan Cleary spent five weeks off and doesn’t get a hand laid on him in his first two kicks,” he said.

“If I’m Brad Arthur, I’m telling someone with some leg speed like a Reed Mahoney, in the first five minutes to get yourself in position on tackles four and five, and level Nathan Cleary. Make sure he gets put on the ground the majority of his kicks.

“The tipping point on that for me is the 10 minutes in the sin-bin, because referees have been inclined to send. If I’m Brad Arthur, I’m telling Reed Mahoney in the first five minutes – maybe give away a penalty and make sure Nathan Cleary ends up on his backside.

“The other part to it is, with Penrith being so prepared and machine-like and mechanical – you need to throw a little curveball at Penrith early, off the scrum come up with a trick play.”

Can Cleary help Penrith go back-to-back?

Absolutely he can – they will go into the match as deserved favourites and will be extremely hard to stop.

But what is also quite hard is winning two competitions in a row – and nobody knows that better than Cronk, who helped steer the Roosters to the title in 2018 and 2019.

“Don’t try and repeat what you did the year before,” Cronk said.

“I’ve learnt that you try and replicate those feelings – it is a completely different storyline and completely different set of circumstances, but you want the same result.

“The other part is, you’ve got to take emotion out of it. There is so much that goes on in and around grand finals, there will be a lot of talk about the dynasty of Penrith.

“At the end of the day, the scoreboard is the most important thing. The process and how you go about it is the most important thing.

“If you start bringing in potentially what could happen into your thought process, that’s when it gets caught up.”

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