WHO IS NATHAN CLEARY?
Nathan Cleary is not only the halfback for the Panthers, but also for NSW, the reigning State of Origin champions. Clean cut and articulate, he is a marketer’s dream. That he is coached by his father, former footballer Ivan, only reinforces his cultivated family-values’ image.
At the age of 22, Cleary is already considered one of the best playmakers in the National Rugby League and is paid accordingly, earning about $1 million per season.
HOW GOOD IS HE?
The initial hype was due to his surname, although he has quickly emerged from his father’s shadow.
Cleary made his first-grade debut in 2016 while still in his teens, becoming the NRL’s top point-scorer the following year. In 2018, he was selected as halfback for NSW. There were fears he was chosen ahead of his time, and that the pressure of playing against a dominant Queensland side that had won 11 of the previous 12 series could derail his career. Instead, Cleary emerged with his reputation enhanced after helping steer the Blues to a rare series victory, a feat he repeated last season.
Penrith spared no expense to ensure Cleary remained at the club long-term. They even lured his father, who was then contracted to Wests Tigers, to return to the foot of the mountains as coach. All up, the club committed an estimated $10 million over five years to unite the family.
WHY IS HE IN THE NEWS?
Yet again, a footballer has come undone due to social media. At a time when Australians were meant to be in lockdown, photographs emerged of Cleary breaking social distancing protocols with a group of young women. When hauled before the NRL’s integrity unit, Cleary explained his visitors were waiting for a cab and that he invited them inside until it arrived.
The NRL proposed a fine of just $10,000 ($6000 suspended), as well as a suspended one-match ban. Cleary was contrite. Case seemingly closed.
And then TikTok videos emerged showing Cleary dancing with the girls, something he neglected to mention to authorities. There was even more to come – it turned out that Cleary actually picked up his friends and brought them to his home. The NRL was furious Cleary had lied to investigators, and upped the fine to $30,000 and added a two-match ban. Police also issued a $1000 infringement notice. As always, the cover-up proved worse than the crime.
WHAT HAS IT DONE TO CLEARY’S IMAGE?
The damage to Cleary’s reputation is more significant than to his hip-pocket. Cleary’s cleanskin image is shattered and he will need to shake the perception that he is just another entitled footballer who believes the law does not apply to him.
NSW coach Brad Fittler – who was also thrown into the spotlight as a teenager when making his own debut for the Panthers in 1989 – can see some parallels in their respective careers.
”I don’t think I was as well behaved as him,” Fittler quipped.
“You can only be judged on what you did at that time. They seem to have moved the goalposts with phones and all the garbage they have to deal with now. I’m so glad I’m not a 20-year-old now, that I was a 20 year old in the ‘90s.”
His father Noel conceded his son had made a big mistake. “I think one way of growing up is making mistakes and as I’ve said, he’s made a big one, paying a pretty heavy price and going through a bit of pain but I think he’s definitely going to come out better for it.”
WHAT’S NEXT FOR CLEARY?
The pressure is now on for Cleary to perform. There were high expectations when he reunited with his father at Penrith last year, but the Panthers finished a disappointing season in 14th place. If they miss the finals again, serious questions will be asked about whether the club erred in investing so much in the pair. A dip in form or any more off-field question marks on character and his Origin spot could be lost, if it hasn’t been already.
Regaining the trust of Fittler is just the start. The public must also be convinced that Cleary has learned from his mistake.
Adrian Proszenko is the Chief Rugby League Reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald.