“Obviously it’s performance [based]. But I love it. There are a lot of things we also do in and around the game, and I enjoy all sides of it.”
Cleary collected NSW’s highest honour, and fans would be flat out thinking of a player more worthy. Tedesco, who had won the award the previous two years, would have pushed for a third had he not been concussed in Brisbane. Jake Trbojevic and Angus Crichton were excellent, while Fittler loved the efforts of Daniel Saifiti, who won the True Blue Award, and Daniel Tupou.
Fittler certainly made it clear he was a fan of Cleary, and there was no way his efforts at Suncorp Stadium deserved to be debated.
“You’d be a pretty tough judge to criticise Wednesday night’s effort,” Fittler said.
“Game one didn’t work and it wasn’t great. But he wasn’t far off his game [in Sydney] on Wednesday night. I thought he was pretty good.
“He’s just tough. He stays in the game and he keeps punching right to the end. When ‘Teddy’ goes down, he’s a big part of what we do, so a lot had to be created. I thought he was pretty good.
“Whether it’s criticising or praising him, Nathan attracts interest. He’s learning to deal with that. It’s hard to criticise anything he’s done this year. I can accept game one [in Adelaide] but outside of that, this year has been incredible.”
Cleary was brilliant last Wednesday in Sydney, ordinary in Adelaide, took Penrith’s grand final loss to Melbourne personally, and sensationally fell short in the Dally M race most expected him to win.
“It’s been a crazy year altogether, but the last month has been the craziest I’ve been involved in,” Cleary said on Thursday.
“I’m very grateful for opportunities I’ve had, to play in a grand final and to come into camp with these boys and play in that decider as well. It’s unfortunate to lose two of the biggest games of my life, but I’ll take a lot out of it and there are a lot of lessons to learn. There’s a fire in the belly for next year.”
Fittler found NSW were marked a lot harder than Queensland, and compared how Cleary was hung out to dry after the Origin I loss, and Xavier Coates’ try was celebrated on the front pages of the papers up north following their loss in game two.
Christian covers rugby league for The Sydney Morning Herald.