Cleary wows teammates with NRL rise

It was the gruelling rugby league initiation that not only showed Nathan Cleary could cut it in the NRL, but also earned him some wide-eyed respect from his Penrith teammates.

In just the third game of his career, the 18-year-old Cleary was put through the wringer last Friday by South Sydney juggernaut Sam Burgess when the Rabbitohs moved their star forward wide on the field.

Instead of playing in his normal role carrying the ball through the middle, the dual international took aim at the rookie halfback with almost every touch of the ball in a full 80-minute shift on the flanks.

But the son of former pointscoring wizard Ivan impressed his teammates with a firm defensive showing.

“Obviously, we knew we were going to get a bit of traffic down that edge, (but) he stood up well,” teammate Isaah Yeo said on Tuesday.

“He made a couple of crucial try-saving tackles and just showed that obviously he’s not just in there for his attack. He can hold his own with the big boys in defence.

“That’s been his best part about his game so far – a lot of the boys are confident around him and they know he can do his own thing. We don’t have to worry about him too much.”

Yeo admitted he couldn’t have predicted such a stunning rise from the youngster, who had scored two tries in three games and added four goals from five attempts against the Rabbitohs.

“I knew he had a level head on him and, obviously, you can see the skills in (under-) 20s and he had a game in NSW Cup,” Yeo continued.

“It’s obviously a different level in first grade but he’s come in and been outstanding. He’s been taking on the line well and his kicking game’s been good, but it’s been his defence.”

Teammates have also been surprised at how quickly Cleary has settled in as on-field general.

“I remember when I first come in, I was there not saying a word, whereas he’s come in and he’s leading the training sessions, he’s calling the sets and he’s shown that in the game as well,” Yeo said.

“He can take a back seat if he wants with Peter Wallace at nine, and obviously (Bryce Cartwright) doing his own thing at six. But when he needs to be, he’s more than happy to do it.”

Halves partner Cartwright is another who has been left dumbfounded by Cleary’s meteoric rise.

“I keep telling people I can’t believe he’s 18. It’s pretty scary how good he is and how much he leads our team around,” he said.

“I watched a few 20s games of him but heard more about him than I’ve seen him. Just training with him and playing with him, it’s just amazing how good he is and how much he knows about the game.”

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