Boom Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary will come up against his idol in Johnathan Thurston for the first time this Saturday afternoon in Townsville.
It’s a daunting prospect for the young halfback, who was all of four-years-old when Thurston made his NRL debut with Canterbury way back in 2002. When Thurston played his first Origin match, Cleary was just out of Kindergarten.
While the 19-year-old is looking forward to going up against a future Immortal, all eyes will be on the Queensland half who is set to play his 300th first grade game.
“It probably adds a bit of toughness to the match,” Cleary said of Thurston’s milestone.
“Thurston’s a great player, probably the best in the game. To go up there for his 300th will be tough, but I’m really looking forward to the challenge and hopefully we can knock them off.”
When Cleary goes up against Thurston tomorrow afternoon, it will make for a very interesting match-up considering the 2015 Premiership winner was just about signed, sealed and delivered to the Panthers a number of years ago.
After Thurston decided to stick with the Cowboys, Penrith went through a number of halves before Cleary started knocking down the door mid last year.
Cleary, who is regarded as one of the game’s next big halfbacks and a future representative star himself, said the Cowboys leader is his idol.
“Yeah definitely… I’ve always looked up to him,” he said.
“He’s a great player and I think most halves coming through the grades look up to him and admire him.”
While a lot of the focus will be on whether the Cowboys’ representative halves back up from Origin on Wednesday, in particular Thurston, Penrith fans can’t wait to see the continued progression of their own halves pairing in Cleary and Matt Moylan.
The Panthers skipper, who made his move into the halves three weeks ago, is Cleary’s fourth halves partner in 28 games, including his third this year.
Cleary said while he wasn’t expecting to play with Moylan in the halves this season, their combination is coming along quicker than expected.
“It’s started off pretty well, he’s playing really good footy at five-eighth and if we can continue building on that combination, then I think it can only help the team,” he said.
“Moyza’s really helped me out by dominating the team and he really gets involved in attack. He’s obviously the captain too and leads by example, which is really helpful.”
While Cleary and Moylan’s partnership is working a treat, the former St Dominic’s student was sad to see his original halves partner this season, Te Maire Martin, leave the club.
The Kiwi international was finally let go last week, to join the Cowboys, after an unsettled first half of the season that saw him dropped to reserve grade.
“That’s footy I guess. It’s disappointing he’s leaving, I was good mates with him,” Cleary said.
“Hopefully he can fulfil that opportunity he’s been given now and play some regular footy.”
Nathan Taylor is the Western Weekender’s award-winning sports journalist. Nathan is also the Weekender’s Deputy Editor.