“With the situation Nathan found himself in and having those two games off, it’s made him mature again,” Barrett told the Herald.
“He’s realised how important he is to this team and how much his profile has grown the past 12 months.
“That in itself will make him a better player.
“He’s one of the highest-profile players in the game, especially in western Sydney.
“What’s happened to him has hit home. One mistake cost him dearly and he was embarrassed by it.”
Barrett has been the perfect sounding board for Cleary – he, too, was a playmaker who played Origin as a teenager but also did not want to miss out on the fun times with his mates.
“I can certainly relate to his situation, and you still want to do things your mates are doing,” Barrett said.
“Players these days are under more scrutiny compared to 20 years ago.
“We had no social media back then. And there were only two televised games, so if you made a mistake the whole world didn’t know about it.
“Nathan’s got to understand that sometimes he’ll come under more scrutiny than everyone else. It comes with the position and stature of playing in the jumper he does.
“But he’s handled it well. He’s also lucky he has a great mentor in his father [and Panthers coach] Ivan, and [assistant] Cameron Ciraldo has had a lot to do with him.”
Barrett was an assistant at Penrith before he took on the head coaching job at Manly and returned to the foot of the mountains this season.
Cleary said after the round-two win over St George Illawarra – just days before COVID-19 forced the suspension of the NRL – that Barrett had helped simplify his game.
“Baz gives me a lot of confidence and he has one of the best footy minds when it comes to attack,” Cleary said.
Just as Johns backed Moses to thrive with fewer stoppages and new six-again rule, Barrett expected Cleary to relish the rule changes.
“Nathan likes to run the ball and he understands the game,” Barrett said.
“Before the game was a bit like chess, the play-the-balls were slower and we could predict where we were going to end up on the field, how many defenders they would have had and what shapes we wanted to throw at the defence.
“Now there’s more of a reliance on the out-and-out footballers and halfbacks like Nathan, who is also like Mitch [Moses] and Cherry [Daly Cherry-Evans].”
Cherry-Evans and Barrett forged a close friendship on the northern beaches and the gun No. 7 regularly heaps praise on the young coach.
Barrett said Cherry-Evans was one of the best ”instinctive” players he had ever come across, while Cleary ”sits between Cherry and Cooper Cronk”.
“Nathan’s a really good game manager but also has that ability to play off the cuff,” Barrett said.
“He’s level headed and calm, which again is probably a trait he gets off his dad.
“We are not expecting Nathan to come out and blow Parramatta away. He doesn’t need to. We just want him to focus on his defence and his kicking game.
“The rest will happen for him because he’s a very good player.
“The assists and try-scoring opportunities will be a byproduct of him nailing the little things.”
Cleary was brilliant in the opening two rounds while Moses has taken his game to a new level this season.
The Bankwest Stadium clash is already being touted as an early audition for the NSW No. 7 jersey.
It was against the Eels on a Thursday night last year Cleary went a long way to retaining his Blues’ spot.
Dylan Edwards was named on an extended bench for Penrith but will not return and Caleb Aekins retains his fullback spot.
Eels coach Brad Arthur channelled his inner Des Hasler when he said of the Panthers: “I know there’s a fair bit of talk about us but [Penrith] are flying under the radar as well.”
Christian covers rugby league for The Sydney Morning Herald.