Brad Fittler’s strongest indication yet that Nathan Cleary will keep NSW spot

“He’s not setting up a lot of tries but he’s still kicking OK. He runs the ball a lot. He supports a lot. He does a lot of those effort areas that I think are desperately important in big games like State of Origin.

“While everything is awful out there at Penrith, and it’s not a lay down misere he’s going to play for NSW, he’s doing most of the things I look for in players.

I think he got some tools out of last year’s Origin that he didn’t have before to handle this stuff.

Brad Fittler on Nathan Cleary

“He had an awful game against the Tigers [in Magic Round] when they had a whole different right side and they ran in three tries down his side. But he normally doesn’t miss tackles. His base game is something that everyone wants to play with. The pretty stuff isn’t just coming but he’s still a good player.

“This is a big game against Penrith because Maloney isn’t playing. This is his chance.”

Not going well: Nathan Cleary and Penrith are struggling this season.Credit:AAP

Few have worn the brunt of the criticism for Penrith’s 2-8 win-loss start, which sees them rooted to the bottom of the ladder, like the 21-year-old halfback.

His father, Ivan, being appointed coach ahead of Wayne Bennett — the preference of recently departed Panthers boss Phil Gould — has only added to the pressure.

While Fittler has been desperate to retain Cleary, believing he’s the future following last year’s series win, the momentum has been with Souths’ Adam Reynolds to partner the Roosters’ Luke Keary in the halves.

When Fittler was choosing his side for Origin last year, Gould advised him that if he was going to pick Cleary then he had to stick with him in the long-term.

But that was on the proviso that an experienced player like Maloney played alongside him. Maloney’s form has been so patchy that he’s considered little chance of being selected.

Fittler revealed he had recently caught up with Cleary to assure him he hadn’t lost his faith.


“I like him,” Fittler said. “He cares a lot for Penrith. It’s not going good out there. The whole Dad thing has amped up everything. Gus leaving, or Gus being moved on, and on top of the coach [Anthony Griffin] leaving last year … a lot of it has come back on Nathan, because he’s the one who has to play.

“But I think he got some tools out of last year’s Origin that he didn’t have before to handle this stuff. Things like how to deal with media. I told him, ‘Get stuff done, don’t run away from it, tick it off’.

“He’s as good as he can be at the moment. If you are a real footy player and you are losing, life isn’t good. You’re not supposed to be smiling. I’ve been there when you’re losing and it’s just horrible.”

Fittler will name his team on Sunday and indicated last week that as many as six positions were still up in the air. He says he’s keeping his side open until the final match of the final round when he will meet with advisers Greg Alexander and Danny Buderus.

“I haven’t run a line through anyone,” Fittler said. “I will save that until Sunday because you just never know, do you? I hate saying players’ names. I don’t like saying their name in a position outside of the meetings with Brandy [Alexander] and Bedsy [Buderus]. I feel like it puts unnecessary pressure on everyone. I’m a believer in the universe. That puts pressure on the universe. I don’t want to mess with the universe.”

Andrew Webster is Chief Sports Writer of The Sydney Morning Herald.

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