He claims he hasn’t heard the media noise about his possible NSW debut in next month’s Origin opener, but Penrith Panthers half-back Nathan Cleary added fresh fodder to the debate with a strong return from a knee injury on Thursday night.
The boom 20-year-old certainly didn’t look like he was playing his first game in eight weeks as he helped lead the Panthers to a 16-2 victory over his old man Ivan’s Wests Tigers at Panthers Stadium.
“It felt really good, it’s hard watching for eight weeks or whatever it was,” Cleary said of his return.
“It was really pleasing seeing the boys doing so well but to finally get out there and be back playing some footy, it’s the best feeling.”
And did he feel the knee that cost him seven games of the 2018 campaign?
“No, that was probably the most pleasing thing for me, I didn’t really even think about the knee,” he said.
“Once I got into the game it was fine and I’m really happy with how I pulled up.”
The Panthers playmaker easily outpointed fellow Blues hopeful Luke Brooks as NSW coach Brad Fittler watched on as Channel Nine’s sideline commentator.
Fittler’s halves pairing for the June 6 series opener against Queensland at the MCG has been all the talk this week after revelations the new coach is considering Parramatta’s Mitchell Moses ahead of Penrith veteran James Maloney.
Maloney had been widely considered a selection certainty, with Cleary, Brooks and Sydney Roosters star Luke Keary thought to be fighting for the other spot in the halves.
But Cleary claims he has tuned out the Origin speculation to focus solely on his NRL return.
“The only real talk about it’s been from the media, I haven’t really thought about it much,” Cleary, who conceded his club combination with Maloney remains a work in progress, said.
“I’ve just been really focused on rehabbing right and getting back and just trying to get back for this game.
“I’m just stoked to be back playing footy with my best mates and even better to get a win.”
Ivan Cleary added of his son’s performance on Thursday night: “He looked threatening actually, he didn’t look short of a gallop, I thought he went alright.
Panthers coach Anthony Griffin added of Nathan’s return: “I thought it was a really good, solid 80 minutes by him.
“Obviously it’s hard coming back after you’ve been out for eight weeks but I thought he did a great job.
“His kicking game was great, he made a few half breaks, he was incisive with the ball, he was strong in defence so I thought it was a good return.”