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Nathan Cleary still lights up when Andrew Johns’ name does the same on his phone screen.
The Eighth Immortal is predicting Cleary’s own “light bulb moment” has arrived for the NSW No.7, and will see him truly dominate a State of Origin series as one of the last achievements missing from his rugby league resume.
After Cleary’s starring role in Origin II last year, Johns declared the Panthers playmaker would surpass him as the greatest halfback in Blues history.
Cleary has since added another premiership, Australian halfback honours and a World Cup win to his CV.
Johns regularly calls the 25-year-old to talk playmaking intricacies and sees Cleary treading the same path he did en route to becoming arguably the greatest halfback the game has seen.
“It’s all just building blocks with Nathan; he keeps ticking off the boxes every year as he goes on,” Johns said. “The next challenge for Nathan – as everyone is talking about – is owning an Origin series. Fingers crossed this is the one.
Blues coach Brad Fittler and captain Nathan Cleary feel the pain of defeat in game three last year.Credit: Getty
“It was around the early 2000s where I thought I got to that level. I was 25 or 26, and Nathan is the same age. The next four or five years – fingers crossed he stays injury free – you’re going to see a different player. You’re going to see a player totally elevate himself in the game.
“It’s like the light bulb moment – from the age of 14 or 15 when you come into a junior system in a club and you’re taught all these philosophies.
“My eyes just opened up. Once you’re on the field, you get little scenarios or moments where it’s a case of ‘this is what I’ve been working on, this is what this coach was telling me about’. That’s happening for Nathan now.
“He’s going to have moments out there in this series where the game slows down and he’ll have those light bulb moments.“
Cleary acknowledges as well that owning an entire Origin campaign is his next great challenge, having watched Ben Hunt snaffle his chip kick in game three last year before sprinting away for a series-winning try.
For what it’s worth, Cleary’s seven Origin wins from 13 appearances just shades Johns’ at the same point in his interstate career, with the Knights icon winning six of his first 13 Origins and drawing one.
Johns then emphatically laid claim to being the game’s best player, losing just two of his next 10 games for NSW in three series wins along with a 2001 title with Newcastle, a Dally M Medal and the Golden Boot award.
Cleary still treasures whatever advice Johns dials in with during the season and believes his time in the Origin sun has come, paying little heed to critics of his performances for NSW.
Andrew Johns celebrates his career-defining 2005 Origin series victory for NSW.Credit: Fairfax Photographic
“He’ll usually ring me and we’ll just discuss what’s been happening, what he’s seeing,” Cleary said. “It’s a welcome phone call, I still get pretty excited when his name pops up.
“I know what I want to get out of myself and I know that I’m ready. I’m a pretty harsh critic of myself and I know when I haven’t played well or when I’ve done the things I want to. That’s experience and building it over time to see what works.
“I definitely feel like I’m ready, and having Joey around instils confidence and allows me to keep learning because he’s the best person to learn off.”
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