David Skipwith is the Herald's rugby league reporter

NRL: Nathan Cleary a chip and chase off old block

Nathan Cleary of the Panthers. Photo / Getty
Nathan Cleary of the Panthers. Photo / Getty

Rookie Penrith halfback Nathan Cleary has carved his own path into the NRL, but will follow in his father's footsteps today when he runs out to play the Warriors at Mt Smart Stadium.

The 18-year-old might only be seven games into his first grade career but has long been accustomed to the expectation that goes with the Cleary name, with dad Ivan having enjoyed an illustrious NRL career that included successful stints at the Warriors as both a player (2000-02) and coach (2006-11) before taking the reins at the Panthers (2012-15).

Just two-years-old when his father was kicking goals for the Warriors, Cleary spent 11 years in Auckland and many hours honing his skills on the sidelines during team training sessions at the club's Penrose base.

"It will be a bit weird to go back to Mt Smart," Cleary told Radio Sport. It will be the first time since Dad was coach but I'm really looking forward to it. I spent most of my time growing up there going to training and kicking balls back to players so I know it fairly well.

I'd watch what they were doing and I just loved being around NRL players. Watching people like Shaun Johnson running around was pretty crazy. Being able to line-up against him will be one of my dreams that I'll be able to fulfil."

Like his dad, Cleary's childhood sporting career began in football before making the switch to league as an 11-year-old, playing for Mt Albert's under 13s in the restricted weight competition under the guidance of former Warriors under 20s coach John Ackland.

The family name and uncanny resemblance to his dad ensured he would always be judged harder than most other players but the weight of external expectation seemed to produce the best in him.

"It's been around since I was a young age so I've been able to adapt and get used to it," he said. "I don't really feel like there's that much pressure anymore and when there is I block it out. I definitely didn't expect to be playing NRL this year but I'm lucky to be surrounded by a pretty good team so they're helping me along the way."

Ivan's controversial exit from Penrith last October naturally came as a disappointment to Nathan, who was playing in the club's title-winning NYC team. But in a mark of his desire to make it to first grade on his own, the then Australian Schoolboys captain declined to activate a get-out-clause in his contract that would allowed him to follow his dad to another club.

Watching him steer the Panthers to last week's comprehensive win over Brisbane in the cauldron of Suncorp Stadium, Cleary displayed all the ice cool qualities that were trademarks of his father's game.

His combination with five-eighth Bryce Cartwright has given the eighth-placed Panthers balance and helped their climb into finals contention after an inconsistent start.

"The way he's playing is exactly the way he's played in every other grade and junior team," Ivan explained proudly. "He's really latched on to the notion of doing what's best for the team with his kicking game and making other players around him look better. There's a lot of hype around him but he still does very little at home so nothing's changed."

After torturing Broncos wing Corey Oates with a series of towering kicks, his dad, together with Panthers coach Anthony Griffin, have surely encouraged him to repeat the tactic against Warriors veteran Manu Vatuvei?

"I obviously know a little bit about the Warriors. But he watches and is pretty good at working things out."

- NZ Herald

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