Should Nathan Cleary truly be the man to eventually bear the burden of being NSW halfback, this shapes as the ideal teaser for what he stands to inherit. The teenager has accomplished much this season but leading Penrith to victory in Brisbane would be a moment to savour.
His rise and rise in 2017 has been remarkable enough and already, he has helped the Panthers negotiate the first week of the finals. With Matt Moylan the external talking point, Cleary zoned out, checked in at Allianz Stadium, then made it clear the team can revolve around his youthful energy, execution and leadership.
The stakes were high but in the cavernous stands, the crowd of just 15,408 was barely different from a regulation club game. Now Cleary must find his feet not just for an elimination final but for an occasion, with a wounded Broncos likely to draw 40k-plus as they fight for survival at the Cauldron.
Cleary has given every indication that he can handle the ever-increasing stages but it’s not as if Brisbane will be giving him a free ride. His swift rise means he arrives at Suncorp Stadium as one of the game’s premier halves, which means an inevitable target on his jumper.
The Broncos are wary of his running and support game but have identified Cleary’s kicking as one of the reasons behind Penrith’s success. He can expect serious pressure when he prepares to hoof one down the field on Friday, with Brisbane promising to be “hard on him” as they try to bounce back from a loss to the Roosters.
“He’s been pretty outstanding. His kicking game has been one of the best in the comp. He can really win a game with the way he kicks. For us, it’s about getting that inside pressure on him and hopefully fumble a few kicks,” Broncos back-rower Matt Gillett said.
“He’s a young talent and he’s playing what he sees. We have to be hard on him and get the little things right.”
Wayne Bennett was certainly hard on his squad at Red Hill on Monday. He was the only coach on the weekend that didn’t lay the blame for defeat at the hands of officials, instead trying to get his head around a concerning missed tackle count and the defensive misreads that saw the Roosters stroll through gaps the size of road trains.
Like they did after conceding 54 points to the Eels, Brisbane whacked each other around the training paddock in one of their most physical sessions of the entire season. Bennett often stands back and observes training; this time he was barking orders and urging them forward at every turn.
Kodi Nikorima ran at fullback, with Benji Marshall in the halves alongside Anthony Milford, suggesting Bennett may opt for that formation again despite its issues against the Roosters.
Gillett conceded his side of the field and his defensive combination with Marshall had its limitations but said that “disconnect” could be mended by Friday night.
“It was just effort. We had the line right, it was probably a little bit of trust. Particularly on my side with Benji, we haven’t played a lot of footy together. We haven’t defended like that for a while. We had good talks this morning about how we can go better and get it right on Friday night.
“It’s not just individual trust. It’s the structure we defend with. It’s a matter of trusting that and going out there and doing it. Obviously we were a bit disconnected on Friday night so we’ve only got ourselves to blame.”
Fullback and captain Darius Boyd trained sparingly on Monday and looks likely to be a spectator again as he recuperates from his hamstring injury. He would be expected to play in a preliminary final should Brisbane progress.