Why the legacy of the past and the possibility of the future are on the line for Nathan Cleary
There isn’t much point about debating whether halfbacks get too much credit when a team succeeds and too much blame when they fail because it’s just a fact of life in rugby league, and it’s one that will never change.
That’s just the cost of doing business when you’re wearing the number seven jersey. Apart from a few rare exceptions, you are the leading man, the star of the show, the hero in victory and the villain in defeat. No matter what happens, they don’t ever stop talking about you.
It’s a roller-coaster ride that cannot be easy to bear, even if you’ve been a halfback all your life like Nathan Cleary.
The Blues playmaker has hit both ends of the spectrum so far this series — he was dragged from pillar to post after a poor showing in Sydney only to be exalted for his role in New South Wales huge win in Perth.
Regardless of which way the Origin III goes on Wednesday night, Cleary will feature heavily in how it’s either won or lost and, if the Blues do get the victory, it could be the latest in what has seemingly been a long line of coronations for the Panthers star.
Cleary will play his 13th Origin on Wednesday night, drawing level with Peter Sterling in terms of caps for New South Wales.
Only Ricky Stuart and Andrew Johns — the other two contenders for the title of the state’s best-ever Origin halfback — and Mitchell Pearce have pulled on the Blues’ No. 7 jersey more times.
We love to play the game of comparing today’s greats to those of the past, but it’s a game that can’t be won at either end, and saying Cleary is the equal or better of Johns, Stuart or Sterling is both unprovable in either direction and a very easy way to cheese everyone off.
The three older players all had Origin matches to forget, as Cleary has, but they don’t loom as large in our memories as their many triumphs.
One day, many years from now, when some other Blues halfback is trying to match the Cleary legacy it could well be Cleary who gets that same treatment, but that’s not how it works when you are the one running up the hill.
If the legends of the past existed in the 24-hour rugby league news cycle with it’s social media-take economy, as Cleary does, we would remember them differently but their careers are preserved in amber and cloaked in our own nostalgia.
It means that to try to compare them to today’s players on a one-to-one basis can be a fun way to while away the time, but it’s also to enter a labyrinth with no exit, a maze with no prize.
You can pick apart Cleary’s credentials if you really want to do it.
Since Cleary became the state’s dominant playmaker after James Maloney’s departure in 2019, his best performance have come in big Blues victories: his two man-of-the-match displays, as accomplished as they were, came in games New South Wales won by 24 and 32 points.
But you can do the same with Sterling, who only ever won one series, and Stuart, who’s Origin career only lasted five years, and even Johns, who debuted in 1995 but didn’t win a series as the out-and-out halfback until 2003. If you look close enough at any case, you’ll find some cracks, if you really need to see them.
As such, the ultimate hope for any current star is not to surpass the legends of yesterday, but to enter the conversation as something of an equal, to ensure that if you mention Nathan Cleary in a front-bar debate over who is the best halfback in New South Wales history, you will not be shouted down.
And when we do stack their achievements against one another and compare what each of them did in their own time, Cleary’s Origin resume is starting to look an awful lot like the best of what came before him.
A Blues win on Wednesday will mark Cleary’s fourth series victory — that would be equal with Stuart as the most by any Blues halfback — and Cleary’s two man-of-the-match awards are also level with Stuart and within touching distance of Sterling and Johns (both won four, the most of any Blue).
Numbers don’t meaning anything unless we give them context and debates over the comparative quality of the teams the four halfbacks faced, the teammates at their disposal, the different styles they played under and how exactly Johns’ stints at hooker muddy the waters, it all helps to frame that discussion, which is why this year’s decider gives Cleary the chance to fully enter that unwinnable debate.
What Cleary has not done, yet, is produce the kind of halfback performance that wins the game for his side in a tight battle, a battle that could have gone either way until Cleary took control and made it happen, the way Sterling, Johns and Stuart did.
A Lang Park decider is the perfect place to do just that. Cleary’s played in a Lang Park decider once before, in 2020, when the so-called worst Queensland team ever pulled off one of the state’s greatest victories.
The Panthers halfback did a serviceable job that night — it was the loss of James Tedesco to concussion that threw New South Wales out of whack and opened the door for the Maroons ambush.
Leading in, it was doubtful Cleary would ever get as good an opportunity to win a decider under the harshest of conditions, but he has that chance now. Cameron Munster’s withdrawal means the Blues will enter the game as hot favourites.
Cleary has two club teammates in the spine with him, and he has Isaah Yeo at lock forward. It will not be easy, but the deck is stacked in his favour: He has the added benefit of having Tedesco around, about whom there is no debate of his place in New South Wales Origin history because he is already the state’s best-ever fullback by some margin, alongside him.
Victory alone will result in Cleary matching Johns and Stuart as the only Blues halfbacks to win a decider in enemy territory but, if he can play a major role in a Blues victory, then it will be much easier to make the case that he is drawing closer to the ghosts of the past.
Catching them is impossible. It is to enter a race that is unwinnable, going up a hill that never ends, but Cleary is getting achingly close to beginning to run.
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