As he enters his fifth year in the NRL, Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary is hoping for stability this season especially when it comes to his partner in the halves.
Since making his debut midway through the 2016 season, Cleary has had nine different halves partners – an astonishing figure considering the 22-year-old has only played 79 first grade games.
While he had significant stints alongside James Maloney, Matt Moylan and Bryce Cartwright over the years, there are a handful of five-eighths he’s only ever had one NRL game with – including the two battling it out for a spot in next week’s season opener.
Young guns Jarome Luai and Matt Burton have been jostling it out all pre-season to be the six to Cleary’s seven.
While most believe Luai to be the heir apparent to Maloney, there’s some sections of the fanbase who would like to see Burton – who enjoyed a stellar debut against Cronulla last year – get the shot.
Speaking with the Weekender, Cleary seemed to throw his weight behind 23-year-old Luai, who he combined with during last week’s trial against the Eels in Bega.
“I thought we went pretty well, we still have things to fine tune and get right but all in all I thought it went well,” he said.
“Romey is a great talent and I think he’ll show that when he gets the opportunity this year.
“The team has seen a lot of chop and change but I think we have a pretty good five-eighth in Romey and, if he goes down, Burto is there too.”
Cleary is right, the club has seen a lot of “chop and change” especially in the last 18 months since his father, Ivan, took over as head coach.
The champion NSW Blues halfback said last year’s disappointing season could be put down to instability as well as implementing new systems.
“Last year there was a fair bit of chop and change and bringing in new systems as well, so people were still learning,” Cleary said.
“With another year under everyone’s belt, people are more comfortable with the systems and all that now. There’s still a lot of room for improvement but we’re all on the right track.”
One new system that was introduced in the off-season was Trent Barrett’s attack after the former Manly boss returned to the club late last year as an assistant to coach Cleary.
Over the summer, Barrett was tasked with bringing some life into Penrith’s attack which, at times, was non-existent last season.
“Baz is super smart and has helped me a lot so far, He’s also been helping Romey, Burto and all the other halves here too,” Cleary said.
“He’s put some structures in place that suit us and I’ve already seen some positive signs.”
All will be revealed about Penrith’s halves combination when the Round 1 team is named on Tuesday.
Nathan Taylor is the Weekender’s Deputy Editor and Senior Sports Writer. He also compiles the weekly Chatter on the Box TV column. Nathan is an award-winning journalist, who has worked at the Weekender for nearly a decade.