After a disappointing State of Origin period last season, Premiership-winning halfback and co-captain Nathan Cleary has backed his side to keep the good times rolling when he and up to a dozen of his teammates are on NSW Blues duty from next week.
It’s no secret that Penrith didn’t handle being inundated with Origin selection last year, with plans well in place this season to make sure the club copes a little bit better this time around.
Whether it’s debuting players in first grade to get them accustomed, dropping others to get more minutes in NSW Cup, or resting them entirely this weekend so they can be fresh for NRL action next week – coach Ivan Cleary is leaving no stone unturned in his pursuit to remain on top.
Speaking with the Weekender on Wednesday, Nathan Cleary admitted the defending Premiers are in a much stronger place heading into this year’s Origin campaign than they were last season.
“I think we are better suited now,” the Clive Churchill Medallist said.
“This time last year Origin selection was new to everyone. But after that experience, the club has been working on ways to manage it better.
“I think the guys in the younger grades, especially in Cup, have actually played a fair bit of first grade now, so they’ve got that experience and know what it’s like. I think if they get an opportunity next week, they’ll do a really good job for us.”
With Penrith’s NSW Cup team not playing until Sunday afternoon, coach Cleary is taking no chances with his back-up players, opting to rest a handful of them this weekend so they can be fit and firing for Penrith’s Round 13 NRL clash against the Canterbury Bulldogs at BlueBet Stadium.
“Cup is playing on Sunday this week and it’s a short turnaround to Friday night, so if you lost a couple of guys in that Cup game you’d be pretty short in the ranks,” Cleary said.
“It’s good for the guys being rested because they now get a big preparation heading into Friday’s game against the Dogs.”
One player set to make his long-awaited NRL debut against Canterbury next week is local junior Kurt Falls. The 25-year-old half is one of those players rested from Cup duties this weekend, meaning he’s in line to become Panther #608.
“I’d love to see Kurt get his debut next week,” Cleary said.
“I played school footy with him at Dommies and he’s been chipping away for so many years. He’s been so patient… he did his time at Ron Massey Cup before being called into the top squad last year. He’s worked so hard, and I think he deserves it. It will be good to see.”
But before Cleary and his Blues brigade head off to battle the Maroons, they have one last mission ahead of them this Friday night against the Cowboys.
Since losing to Parramatta three weeks ago, Penrith have taken their game to another level – handsomely defeating the Storm and Roosters in back-to-back weeks.
Cleary said the side’s shock loss to the Eels at home is now seen by many at the club as a blessing in disguise.
“We’re always looking to get better and sometimes a loss can be a blessing in disguise, just to tighten a few things up and keep striving to be better,” the 24-year-old said.
“I think that’s the beauty of being part of this team – especially over the last few years – everyone just comes in each week and wants to get better no matter what the result on the weekend. Everyone is just striving to improve.”
Like the Panthers, one team that has improved out of sight this season is Friday’s opponents North Queensland. Currently sitting in third place, the boys from Townsville have won their last six matches. Cleary said he’s seen similarities between the Cowboys and the Panthers.
“They work really hard for each other and have an emphasis on a team-first mentality – similar to what we have – they are putting their defence first and their playing some really good attacking footy off the back of it,” he said.
“They’ve been the surprise packet this year, but it’s no surprise they are playing so well with the mentality they have.”
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 a decade.