“Was he great? No, he wasn’t, but he knows that. He knows his job. We need someone to own the team and I feel like he’s the one we’ll give that opportunity to.”
With James Tedesco replacing Boyd Cordner as skipper after the latter pulled out of the series following another serious head knock, Fittler opted to elevate Cleary to be Tedesco’s deputy.
Despite club captains Clint Gutherson and Cam McInnes, and experienced heads such as Jake Trbojevic, Jack Wighton, Damien Cook and Dale Finucane all in the NSW squad, Fittler did not hesitate giving the Panthers youngster – who has just six Origin games under his belt – the nod.
“He’s 22, there are a really good group of kids here, and we just need to make sure we set up the base well, and he’s part of that base,” Fittler said.
“Absolutely [I support Cleary]. I’m all-in with all of them. We’ve put faith in a lot of players. Across the board we were a seven out of 10 [in Adelaide] when most Origin games we’ve been about a nine out of 10.
“We haven’t just shown faith in Nathan, we’ve shown faith in a lot of players. There are some really good kids there pushing at the moment.
“You don’t want to throw people to the wolves. At some stage you need to back some. I think they’re a good enough team to back.”
The coach – and Cleary – know the No.7’s kicking game needs to be much better at ANZ Stadium.
“That’s his job,” Fittler said. “He knows that. They’re the hard truths.”
Cleary, who has a 3-3 record in State of Origin matches but has featured in two series wins, has been around long enough to appreciate NSW halfbacks are grilled like no other league players after an Origin loss. Mitchell Pearce was a magnet for criticsim for nearly all of his representative career.
“It’s what comes with the jersey: any time you pull on the No.7 jersey you ride the rollercoaster of footy,” Cleary said. “A lot of the time Mitchell was unfairly criticised during Origin. It’s what comes with it.
“I haven’t heard too much [criticism]. I know what I need to do to get better and I’m focusing on the team as a whole and trying to improve.”
Cleary said the key to Origin was all about “owning the moments” and certainly did not take his position in the team for granted.
“One thing I pride myself on is always being grateful for the position I’m in,” he said. “Everyone who gets to pull on a rugby league jersey is grateful, let alone to do it for the Blues. I get pretty hard on myself and I was disappointed with a couple of things.
“It’s about getting better each day and bounce ideas off the coaching staff and players around us.
“I speak to a variety of people. I’m lucky to be in the camp; I’m in with these legends. I’m very lucky with dad [Penrith coach Ivan Cleary], although he never really gives me any tips on Origin – he never played.
“He tells me what I’ve done well and what I can do to help the team.”
Tedesco made a point of throwing his support behind his new second in charge, saying: “Nathan has been the best player all year. I told him not to think about a big game too much and just play your footy. There’s more external pressure and expectation, but we all know how good he is and it’s all about trusting himself because we have all the trust in world in him. I’m confident me and him can lead the team around.”
Sports news, results and expert commentary delivered straight to your inbox each weekday. Sign up here.
Christian covers rugby league for The Sydney Morning Herald.