Eight years ago at Leichhardt Oval, Nathan Cleary was almost the hero.
Having scored or assisted on four of their six tries, it was only natural the Panthers would go back to their classy playmaker with the score locked at 30-all, the game on the line.
For a moment it looked like Cleary, then just 16 years old, had won the SG Ball Grand Final for Penrith.
Instead, his 35-metre field goal attempt bounced off the top of the right post, landing back in the field of play as another one of the game’s soon-to-be superstars stepped up.
Swatting one defender to the side and then beating four more, Latrell Mitchell scored his second try in six minutes to seal a 34-30 comeback win for the Roosters.
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On that day, it would be Mitchell’s turn to have his moment and there were plenty more of those to come for the now 25-year-old, inspiring South Sydney on its recent finals run.
But in defeat, there was something about Cleary’s performance that afternoon that stands out to Penrith’s pathways manager Lee Hopkins, even to this day.
“It was a really high-quality game of football,” Hopkins told foxsports.com.au.
“You could just see that was the first real point where you go, ‘Well, OK, there’s something here, we’re going to have something here. It’s going to take time but we’re going to have something’.”
In just over two years, Cleary was making his NRL debut as a fresh-faced teenager against the Melbourne Storm. There were no tries or assists from the 18-year-old, no flashy highlight-reel plays.
But there were 36 tackles — the most by a half on debut since records were kept by the Fox Sports Lab in 1998. Proof, even if it was not clear at the time, that Cleary was made for first grade.
Not everyone is. Penrith’s production line is the envy of the rest of the competition but not every promising young prospect is guaranteed to be a success at the top level.
Jim Jones, the club’s recruitment guru and longest serving employee, knows it better than most.
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“You never know whether they’re going to be NRL players,” he told foxsports.com.au.
“We’re lucky we’ve got the Academy out here and great staff and our programs, they’re coming from Ivan and the head coaches and senior staff and filter back through the grades. “It’s up to the boys to do it. They’ve always got some ability but it’s hard to tell who’s the one who will go through the top. It’s usually the ones that are self-driven, they may have a little bit of luck with injury and an in-built determination to make it.”
The same was even true for Cleary, who came off the bench for the Panthers in Harold Matthews and was reserve hooker for the first few games of SG Ball.
“That’s how much he has progressed,” Jones said.
You see, in the early stages of their development it was actually Jarome Luai who was the more highly-rated halfback. That was, until he and Cleary then partnered in the halves.
“The further they got through [SG] Ball, they were starting to raise some eyebrows and then they went up through the grades and they’ve kicked on,” Jones said.
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Dominating in the lower grades is one thing but making the step up to the reserves is another entirely and it is usually then that Hopkins gets a sense for whether truly ready.
That word ‘ready’ can mean different things for different clubs. For the Panthers, as Hopkins explained, it means being “ready to make an impact, not just to come up and be in the team”.
“Generally when kids come through in second grade, that’s when you can really find out how long they’re going to be there,” he added.
“Some forwards take a little bit longer but Nathan and Jarome were never going to spend long in second grade. They just hit the field and they were far too good for them.”
And in the case of Cleary, he played just the one NSW Cup game against the Bulldogs in Belmore before being thrown straight into the NRL.
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“He was just so cool, calm and collected for a kid of his age,” Hopkins said of that game.
“He was relaxed, made his tackles and got his job done and I remember speaking to Steve Georgalis after the game and he said, ‘How do you think the kid went?’.
“I said, ‘Well, mate, we won’t be seeing him again, he’s too good for us’ and the following week he was picked to play NRL. Nath only played the one NSW Cup game and then moved on. Jarome was not too far behind.”
Now, Luai and Cleary will make history on Sunday night at Accor Stadium, becoming
the first halves pairing to start three straight Grand Finals together since Peter Sterling
and Brett Kenny for Parramatta (1981-84).
The two first combined at SG Ball level in 2015 and have developed what Hopkins could only describe as a “sixth sense”, an understanding for each other’s game that can’t be taught.
“They’ve played footy for such a long period of time,” Hopkins said.
“They just know. It’s one of those things you can’t explain. I don’t know if they can explain it. It’s more that they just know what their job is and how to do it.
“They first played together when they were 15 and have pretty much been the halves partner in every team they’ve been in their entire career so far. Time develops everything and the more they play together the stronger it is going to get.”
That in itself is a terrifying prospect for the rest of the competition given Luai and Cleary’s existing record in the NRL, winning 53 of 57 games together as a halves combination.
That 93 per cent win record is the highest for any halves combination, in the Origin era, to have started at least six games together, with Cooper Cronk and Cameron Munster just behind (won 12 of 13, 92 per cent).
Winning is a habit and it is one Luai and Cleary have been perfecting long before they were NRL players.
“What you see today is the product of what they have been pretty much their whole lives playing footy,” Hopkins said.
“Their personalities were there when they were younger. Jarome was able to step and jump and get around three or four other people while he was on the field and that flair was there. “Nath had that great control and calm nature about him and that was evident when they were playing together at a young age. They were always like that and they complemented each other so well.”
Cronk was a master of building a strong rapport with his halves partner, be it at club or representative level and regardless of who it was alongside him in the five-eighth jumper.
Speaking on Fox League last week after Penrith’s preliminary final win over South Sydney, Cronk singled out an aspect of Luai’s game often seen as a weakness.
For Cronk though it is a “strength” and a sign of just how strong that “sixth sense” is that Hopkins was referencing earlier.
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“Some halves want to be more involved and overplay their hand,” Cronk said.
But not Luai. He floats around on the left edge, sometimes waiting for the ball to come to him and other times going after it. It all depends on the feel he has for the game and specifically, what sort of mood his halves partner Cleary is in.
He has a good sense for when to take a backseat and simply let Cleary do his thing.
“Luai just sits on the left hand side, counts the number in front of him, once he gets that advantage he goes Nathan, Isaah give me the ball,” added Cronk of that game against the Rabbitohs.
“I thought he did a good job, both halves set up a couple of tries and both dictated terms with Latrell [Mitchell] out of position.”
It is all about timing. Luai had to wait two years longer than Cleary to make his NRL debut, accepting both would benefit from learning under the more experienced James Maloney.
But he could have so easily left, like many others would, in the pursuit of instant results. After all, a two-try statement against the Warriors in 2018 seemed to prove Luai was ready to make an impact in the NRL, like the Panthers had always wanted out of their young talent.
“I remember watching that game and just thinking, ‘Holy… what a performance’, he was outstanding,” Hopkins said.
“He bamboozled the Warriors and tore them to pieces. We’d seen a lot of that [from him] as a kid coming through… but when it happened on the big stage that is when everyone goes, ‘Wow, this kid can play’.”
“He probably could have gone to any club in the comp,” added Jones.
Instead Luai played the waiting game and now he is seeing the rewards.
“Growing up and playing in the district, playing for the area — it’s a big thing for the boys,” Jones said.
“The future for him was outlined and it was up to him to accept that. He was behind Jimmy Maloney and he said at the time, ‘I want to stay behind and learn from him’, which he did and Jimmy moved on and he moved up and took his spot. The rest is history.”
Now Cleary and Luai have a chance to make more history on Sunday night. But as much as this is a story about Penrith’s star halves, it is about more than those two.
It is about a production line that never stops, with Penrith looking to become the first team to win the SG Ball, Jersey Flegg, NSW Cup and NRL all in one season this weekend.
For Jones, it makes all the early mornings and long hours all worth it.
“You get out of bed in the morning, get to work and do long hours and weekends,” Jones said.
“I love football and do enjoy it but over the years the club has improved, we built the Academy. You go back 20-odd years I was probably doing it on my own but now we’ve got a pathways team.
“Hats off to the club. It’s a really big rugby league area out here and our board and management don’t muck around. They’ve invested in the future. Our results have come through and they’re there for everyone to see.”