During the COVID break at the start of the NRL season, Nathan Cleary was among the handful of players who stuffed up and threatened to derail the comp.
Since that mistake, and play getting back underway, he’s been almost flawless on the field. He’s gone from an embarrassment to the competition to its shining light.
To recap an episode that now feels like it happened 100 years ago — if TikTok had existed in ye olde times that is — pictures emerged after Anzac Day of Cleary hanging out with five women on a couch, a clear breach of social distancing restrictions.
The Penrith player made his excuses — the women were friends of his sister who had just popped round to wait for an Uber and he had been foolish enough to pose for a photo with them. He was given a slap on the wrist by the NRL and excused by police.
It was all lies. TikTok videos soon came to light showing Cleary performing a synchronised dance routine with the women. And it was revealed it was not his house, but that he had travelled to a friend’s.
The NRL was not happy and neither were the cops. Cleary was suspended for two rounds of the NRL and fined $30,000 — and police hit him with an additional $1,000 fine.
Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’landys said Cleary and other recalcitrant players were “putting the game and the community at risk by their actions”.
Phil Gould called him “obscenely stupid”.
Controversy did not affect Cleary’s on-field performances
But if any code knows how to forgive its players for stupid behaviour, it’s the NRL.
Fast forward to the present day, or as is the case in 2020, grind through month after harrowing month of disease and despair, April has become September and Nathan Cleary has shaken off the controversy like it didn’t happen and emerged as a candidate for the best player in rugby league.
Thursday night’s defeat of the Broncos was the Penrith Panthers’ 12th win in a row and has taken them ever closer to securing the minor premiership, with Cleary pulling the strings from half-back, brilliantly, week in and week out.
He leads the club this season in attacking kicks (148) and has equal-most try assists (15) and break assists (9) with halves partner Jarome Luai.
Those stats are a testament to what a brilliant combination the explosive and unpredictable Luai and the more-organised Cleary make in the middle of the ruck.
Cleary also has the most kicks (270), kick metres (7,810), 40/20s (3) and line engagements (119) in the NRL.
Like his father, only better
Nathan’s father Ivan, who now coaches the Panthers, was a steady, if unspectacular outside back at four clubs in the ’90s and early 2000s who was best known for his superb goal-kicking (and sharply angled jaw).
He’s shown since taking up coaching that he has a sharp mind for the game as well.
Nathan has all that and so much more. Even his jaw is, astonishingly, ‘juttier’ than his dad’s.
Goal-kicking aside, it’s more apt to compare Cleary to Penrith’s two premiership-winning half-backs of the past.
Like 2003 champion Craig Gower, Cleary is a muscular number 7 — all bunched-up power around the shoulders — capable of busting tackles and holding his own in defence.
Like Gower, he’s also clutch, showing icy cool composure at key moments and a match-winning mentality, particularly through the art of the field goal, of which he has three this season, the most in the competition.
ABC Grandstand’s Luke Lewis, a Penrith great, was in awe of the young half-back’s poise after he orchestrated a come-from-behind win over the Cowboys in July.
“Cleary is only 22 years old but he had another great game,” he said.
“He’s got a real cool, calm head on his shoulders, he knew exactly what needed to be done when they fell behind and he came up with some really big plays, some big kicks and then scored the try at the end just to seal it.”
And clearly Cleary has brains to go with the brawn, very much in the mould of the cerebral Greg Alexander, who led Penrith to glory in 1991.
Both men possess tremendous vision and the skill to execute it, through sharp passing and pinpoint-accurate kicking games.
This is perhaps Cleary’s best asset — his ability to control the game and move it to his will like some of the greats before him.
It’s too early to throw that word around for Cleary, as this season is the first he’s truly been able to stamp his class on the competition consistently, game after game.
But at just 22, he has more than enough potential to one day be mentioned alongside the likes of Alexander, Sterling or Johns, if he can maintain his current level.
It’s remarkable he’s still being talked about as a Dally M Medal contender despite missing two rounds and being docked six points due to his TikTok trip-up.
Both times the Panthers have won the minor premiership they’ve gone on to claim the grand final. Each time they’ve done it with a brilliant half-back at the helm. If Cleary maintains his dominant form, it’s hard to see history not repeating for Penrith.