Three games in and Cleary’s already in the spotlight. Image: Phil Hillyard
Three games in and Cleary’s already in the spotlight. Image: Phil Hillyard

Kent: Does Cleary slump mean Blues shake-up?

Nathan Cleary is a young man under siege. It is hard not to feel sorry for him. He is intelligent and committed and caught in a world not of his doing.

How he navigates the first real test of his career will go a long way toward determining what kind of career Cleary has.

Certainly character is not in question. But poor decisions have brought down many fine young men.

This week's focus at Penrith is on their poor start to the season and the match-up between his dad, coach Ivan, and his old team whom he walked out on last year so he could coach his son at Penrith.

In the flotsam around that conversation came the news of Phil Gould's approach to Wayne Bennett to coach the Panthers, which Gould made unaware of the club's approach to Ivan, the struggle Cleary and his halves partner are currently experiencing, and the superb form of two other playmakers in the competition.

Cleary's test of character might begin with his omission from Origin.

There is little doubt Cleary and his halves partner at Penrith James Maloney are struggling.

From three games this season Cleary has two try assists and Maloney has none.

No Penrith back has yet to score a try.

 

Keary has been in dominant form for the Roosters. Image: AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts
Keary has been in dominant form for the Roosters. Image: AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts

 

Against that Luke Keary has begun the season sharply. He leads the competition with six try assists.

South Sydney's Adam Reynolds is second, just one behind him. Both have been in superb touch.

Are the Blues nearing a shake-up?

Cleary emerged as The Answer last season.

There was a generation of trouble in the NSW halves. It began with Brett Finch in 2006 and ended with Mitchell Pearce in 2017.

It looked to find closure last season when Cleary helped NSW to a drought-busting series win.

But having solved the problem last season, does NSW now have a new problem?

 

Cleary’s Blues debut was solid if not spectacular. Image: Phil Hillyard
Cleary’s Blues debut was solid if not spectacular. Image: Phil Hillyard

 

Cleary and Maloney are struggling to find the form of last season. The concern is the manner of Penrith's defeats.

The Panthers began strongly against Melbourne last week. They dominated possession.

In the first 26 minutes Penrith had 28 tackles in Melbourne's cage, the 20m zone leading into the tryline.

Melbourne had none in the same period. Yet Melbourne led the game 6-2.

From 28 tackles the Panthers' halves could not conjure up a single try. It was a typical Melbourne defence; slow play-the-balls, poor meterage, and a general lack of controlling the game. The field felt a little narrower than normal.

A bit like Queensland do.

 

Can Reynolds continue his good form under Wayne Bennett? Image: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images
Can Reynolds continue his good form under Wayne Bennett? Image: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

 

 

The blockage in the cage had a profound effect on Penrith.

It manifested early in the second half when Dylan Edwards dropped a high ball and Brodie Croft snatched it to push the Storm ahead 14-2.

From there Penrith capitulated.

As Phil Gould said later, it was as if they realised that if they couldn't score one try then they sure weren't going to score three and so their resilience folded.

Melbourne ran on with it 32-2.

It was a similar feeling of powerlessness that so often undermined NSW's efforts through Queensland's era of dominance.

 

Fittler has kept faith with Nathan Cleary. Image: Brett Costello
Fittler has kept faith with Nathan Cleary. Image: Brett Costello

 

Brad Fittler went a long way to eliminating the scars of campaigns past when he completely rejigged the line-up last season, picking Cleary for his debut and putting his club teammate Maloney beside him.

Maloney ran the show while Cleary was solid. His strength of performance was as much about what he did not do as much as it was about what he did do.

The Blues can't afford to risk reopening those old scars, though. Struggling to find points might do that.

Fittler is watching on. Where the Blues experimented with the pick-and-stick philosophy at times throughout Queensland's dominance, and adopting a form-first attitude at other times, Fittler is approaching with a healthy blend of both.

The incumbents get first crack - but they have to be playing well and have to be the best players in their position.

When all is said and done Fittler understands that rep jerseys are proof that, at any single time, you were the best player in that position at that time.

Which brings Keary, and possibly Reynolds, well into the conversation.

Keary has won two premierships at two different clubs, crowned by his remarkable performance in last year's grand final. He then capped the season playing Test football for Australia.

The advantage Cleary and Maloney have is time.

It is exactly what Fittler wants. Let's see how they respond to this, he reasons.



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