Nathan Cleary is preparing for the most important game of his life. Not our words, his.
A State of Origin series is on the line and his place in the NSW side may be as well.
No shortage of people have taken aim at the 21-year-old this season, skewering his form and the fact he is a protected species in the eyes of many.
Yesterday, he addressed the prospect of losing his place in the NSW side with a poor performance at Optus Stadium in Perth on Sunday night.
“The only pressure is around winning the game,” Cleary said.
“Obviously I would like to have a really good game but if I have a really good game and we lose, it means nothing. So at the end of the day, if I do my job and do the things I know help the team and help the team win, if I do well, I will be happy with that.
“I want to win any game — any game I go into — but you don’t get any second chances. It is the most important thing in my life right now.”
Cleary has taken comfort in the return of James Maloney, the halves partner who helped him lead NSW to a series win last year.
NSW assistant coach and Blues legend Andrew Johns is never far from his side either. Johns took Cleary for extra work at the end of their training session at the prestigious Hale School in Perth yesterday, growing agitated as the media occupied time that could have been used to refine the halfback’s game.
Having finally prised Cleary away from an interview, Johns stood in the in-goal as the No 7 dropped the ball on to his foot and watched it trickle to the tryline.
“Let the ball hit your foot,” Johns yelled back. “Don’t hit the ball with your foot.”
There is no lack of support for Cleary in the NSW team, Maloney among those to cast doubt on suggestions Cleary could be out the door with another poor showing.
“I don’t think it is him,” Maloney said. “I just think that is how it is if you’re in the halves. It has been like that forever. If you have a six or seven on your back and you get beat, there is criticism.
“That’s how it goes. Every negative Nancy can find negatives. There are plenty of positives in what he has done.
“I think I can take some pressure off him and free him up to do what he does well. That was my only concern in game one — that I hoped whoever was with him took some pressure off him.
“He is still a young kid, he is still learning. He is a long way ahead of a lot of other kids at his age and stuff like that. But he is still learning, especially in this arena.
“As I said, if you have a six or a seven on your back and you lose, there will be critics.”
The respect is mutual.
“It is good to have him back,” Cleary said. “He has been here before, he has won one. The fact we have been playing together the past two years helps.”
Cleary’s unflappable nature may be his greatest strength. He has shown little fragility this season when it would have been easy to collapse under the pressure, critics seemingly talking delight in pointing out the flaws in his game.
One of the favourites has been his lack of try assists in the Origin arena. In four previous games, he is yet to lodge one for his state.
He has struggled to do the same in clubland. What he lacks in creativity, he makes up for in courage and commitment according to those in the Blues camp.
Cleary refuses to let statistics define him.
“If you look through my whole NRL career, I have never been one to put on heaps of try assists and be the creative player in the team,” he said. “That is what Jimmy is here for. He is really good at that. Then you have people like Cooky (Damien Cook) and Teddy (James Tedesco) as well with that X-factor.
“A lot of the time all I have to do is what is best for the team, get us in position, and get those X-factor players the ball when I need to.”