Penrith halfback Nathan Cleary is playing some of the best football of his career in 2020 and it’s due, in no small part, to the influence of a Panthers recruit.
In losing James Maloney to Super League, there were always going to be heavier expectations on Nathan Cleary this season but the young Panther hasn’t just met those standards, he’s surpassed them.
And a big part of the reason is the man shaping as the NRL’s best buy of the season – dummy half Api Koroisau.
Koroisau has unlocked the best play of Cleary’s career – the 22-year old is in the top five for Dally M voting despite missing two games due to suspension.
Ahead of Penrith’s clash with the Tigers on Saturday night, here’s three reasons why Cleary, with an assist from Koroisau, has taken things to another level in 2020.
1) RUN LIKE THE WIND
Through Cleary’s first four years in the top grade Penrith cycled through a series of hookers – Peter Wallace was the top man to begin with but following his injury-forced retirement in 2018 the Panthers cycled through a number of options (Mitch Rein, Sione Katoa, Wayde Egan and Mitch Kenny), none of whom could make the role their own.
New recruit Api Koroisau doesn’t just give Penrith stability at a key position, he’s the best dummy half Cleary has played with by some distance. Koroisau has gained more metres and broken more tackles than any other dummy half this season and the threat he offers as a runner, as well as his ability to commit the markers, opens up more space for Cleary on the outside. The impact was apparent from their first game together, a boilover victory over the Roosters in Round 1.
“He’s (Koroisau) playing exactly the way I knew he was capable of, and the only question mark I had would it would have as quick an impact on Nathan as it was on Daly (Cherry-Evans), with that connection, and absolutely it has,” said Fox League’s Michael Ennis.
“I thought Api last year was a really big reason why Daly played as well as he did, their combination through the middle with Tom (Trbojevic) was so dangerous.
“I knew Api would bring that to Penrith, but I just didn’t know how quickly Nathan would adapt to that.
“But it happened in the second half of the first round, against the Roosters – I watched Koroisau come out from the break and he started to run and play straight, and Nathan started to get a little flatter, and play a little more over the advantage line.”
2) STICK TO THE SCRIPT … OR DON’T
It’s common to hear poor attack described as overly structured, or to have great attack labelled as free-flowing, instinctive footy. The truth is, structure is neither inherently good nor bad – but when a team tips too far in either direction, trouble can start.
The Roosters, for example, have a tremendously structured attack but their playmakers are given a license to adapt within that structure. They have the flexibility of trusting their instincts, with the structural support in place if required. Ideally, a team has the best of both worlds.
Penrith had some of the worst red-zone attack in the league last year, and too often were reduced to throwing the ball to Viliame Kikau and hoping something would happen. The injection of Koroisau has coincided with Cleary showing a greater willingness to break outside of the team’s organised schemes, should the need arise.
As Ennis explains, it’s a subtle dance between using the team’s structures to get them around the park and knowing when it’s time to throw the playbook out the window and take on the defence, and once again Koroisau is the man who helps unlock that in Cleary.
“What I’ve been really happy with Nathan, is that Api has this great ability to play direct, to hold the markers and hold the middle third defenders and the middle forwards,” Ennis said.
“That should bring the running game into the halves, and Daly did that really well last year. That’s started to come into Nathan’s game, and he looks great.
“I love Nathan Cleary’s running game, but I had this fear that we were all so desperate to see this controlling, game-managing halfback that, at times, that stifles a young kids running game.
“He feels like he’s got to get his end of set kicks right, he has to build pressure all the time, and sometimes they lose that spark, that flamboyance they had as kids, where they just look to attack.
“(Cleary’s) got great attacking skills, a really classy kicking game, but he knows when to break out of structure – and that’s what Koroisau does so well. Koroisau breaks out of structure as well as any dummy half in the game, which is so important.
“Structure, at times, can be really important when you need that period in the game where you almost sit on autopilot, but sometimes in the game you need to be unpredictable, you need to play off-script and play what opportunities present themselves.
“Having players around that are willing and able to do that as well make you dangerous. That’s what Koroisau brought out of Daly, and that’s what he’s doing with Nathan.”
3) TIME TOGETHER
Because Cleary started so young and began so fast it’s easy to forget that in the grand scheme of things his career is still just beginning. Cleary made his top grade debut at 18, his Origin debut at 20 and played in back to back finals series in his first two years in the league. His calling card was his on-field maturity and composure, which has somewhat warped our expectations of his development.
Cleary is in the midst of his fifth year in first grade and Saturday’s match will be his 85th first grade game, but he’s the second-youngest regular starting halfback in the league, behind Kyle Flanagan. Being a halfback is like everything else – the more you do it, the better you get – and Cleary has reached a natural point of progression.
As Ennis explains, things could get even better as his combination with Koroisau continues to grow. Koroisau might not get the wraps like Damien Cook or Cameron Smith, and he might never be a representative regular, but his playing style is perfect for Cleary, and that’s what’s most important.
“That’s the exciting thing, that he’s shown great maturity at an early age but he’s really starting to grow now, to develop and add on,” Ennis said.
“I think the way he’s been able to adapt to the rule changes shows there’s a really good footy brain in there, it’s not just that one dimensional, stereotyped game-manager.
“There is so much focus on the halves, but when you have a great relationship between your halves and your dummy half, think back to Danny Buderus and Andrew Johns or even Aaron Payne and Johnathan Thurston.
“Aaron might not have played representative football but he was a hell of a player, and they had a great combination and he brought out the strengths in JT. He knew when to give him the ball, knew when to play away from him – that’s part of the challenge.
“You can see that in Api and Nathan. I think more so these days the dummy half and halfback or dummy half and five-eighth, whoever is the more dominant force in the team, is vitally important, more than the (combination between) the seven and the six.”