Why Cleary must be dropped for Origin I
Ivan Cleary has all summer to pick up the pieces from Sunday night's grand final heartbreak.
But Brad Fittler now has just over a week to get Nathan Cleary's head right before State of Origin kicks off next Wednesday night in Adelaide.
And Penrith's pain now becomes a huge gamble for the NSW coach given the young playmaker's gut-wrenching disappointment.
There is just no nice way of saying this, the shattering 26-20 loss to the Melbourne Storm was undoubtedly Cleary's worst individual performance of the year.
"I thought I let the boys down," Cleary said after the game.
And it is going to be a major task for Fittler to get Cleary back up for Origin.
As rugby league history has shown over generations, it takes time for even the most seasoned performers to recover from grand final disappointment.
Cleary is an exceptional talent but as he showed on Sunday night, he is also human.
But because of the unique way this season has panned out, Cleary will be expected to guide NSW to what most are anticipating should be a comfortable Origin series victory against an understrength Queensland.
Don't think for a minute Wayne Bennett wouldn't have been sitting back and watching Cleary's performance closely on Sunday night and coming up with his own plan.
How Cleary bounces back is one of several big issues that will be debated over the coming days as we get ready for Origin.
Also, there is a huge question mark now hanging over how the Panthers will carry the rising expectation into next season, with the TAB already listing them as the 2021 premiership favourites.
Ivan Cleary's game plan also came under fire, and in particular the decision to stick with Tyrone May at right centre ahead of Brent Naden that backfired badly.
THE GAME PLAN
The Panthers had plenty of early opportunities but blew them through lack of patience and poor execution.
That intercept pass Cleary threw to Suliasi Vunivalu was a perfect example of how Melbourne just frustrated them out of the game.
There was no need for Cleary to go for that long looping pass that screamed of desperation so early in the game.
Can you imagine Cooper Cronk ever doing that when his team was only 10-0 down with close to 50 minutes left in a grand final?
"There were a few moments through our intercept and obviously the one at half-time, and, just let in too many ordinary tries. They were too good."
As it turned out there was only six points separating them at the final siren, so they had plenty of time to get it right.
Penrith also had a massive 60-40 per cent split of possession in the opening 20 minutes but just couldn't make it count.
In comparison, the Storm were clinical and ruthless when they got their opportunities as they rattled up a 22-0 halftime lead.
Yes, the Storm beat them with experience but the Panthers really beat themselves with a lack of composure and too many dumb plays.
"It's hard to put it into words. It's very disappointing," coach Ivan Cleary said.
"It's so hard to get here, the opportunities don't come that often. It was a frustrating game but I am so proud of our boys.
"I'd love to have that game again tomorrow. It was hard to believe we were down 22-0 at halftime.
"The job was to try and keep the belief up. To be still swinging at the end of the game was incredible."
It's terribly sad this had to be the way the NRL season finished for Cleary, given how brilliant he was all year.
But I don't care what they will tell us, that grand final performance has to be a concern for Fittler and the NSW brains trust.
On the surface, an Origin series would seem the perfect tonic for Cleary to put the demons to bed.
"We've got a taste of it now," Cleary said. "It's going to hurt for a long time, but it's fuelled us for next year. We'll train harder than ever now."
But that might be easier said than done.
Some might even argue the Blues would be better off resting some of the grand final players, including Cleary, for the opening game.
There is no doubt Fittler will back Cleary to go out and get the job done.
Fittler was one of Cleary's greatest supporters long before everyone else jumped on board, so you wouldn't expect it to change now.
But there is going to be extreme pressure on the 22-year-old again in the coming week, and how the Blues manage that is going to be a crucial factor.
The decision by Fittler to call up Cleary's halves partner Jarome Luai is also curious given the amount of five-eighths already in the squad including Luke Keary, Cody Walker and Jack Wighton.
Of course, Keary can cover half.
But would another genuine No.7 such as Adam Reynolds, who would have postponed off-season surgery if selected, with an outstanding long and short kicking game as well as goalkicking to rival Cleary's exceptional strike rate, have been a better option given the circumstances surrounding Cleary's grand final performance?
Time will tell.
RIGHT CENTRE CONUNDRUM
Naden was again relegated to the bench but if Ivan Cleary had his time over you'd think he might make a different call.
Naden really made an impact when he came into the game while May also came up with the stray boot that led to Justin Olam's first-half penalty try, and he got burnt for pace when Ryan Papenhuyzen scored his runaway try.
Would it have been any better if Naden had started?
Coach Cleary had obvious concerns about Naden's defence and for good reason after the opening finals match against the Sydney Roosters.
But going forward, it only puts a bigger cloud over Naden's future at the foot of the mountains.
While the Panthers have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to young backline talent, you'd imagine Naden would have finished the season feeling pretty dejected given his demotion throughout the finals series.
Matt Burton is another player whose future will also gain plenty of attention in the coming days with the Bulldogs - led by outgoing Panthers assistant Trent Barrett - expected to pounce.
REPLACING TAMOU'S EXPERIENCE
Isaah Yeo is the obvious leading contender to take over the captaincy from the departing James Tamou.
But Tamou's experience is what the young Panthers will miss most.
As we've seen at the Brisbane Broncos, talent alone isn't enough in the rough and tumble world that is the NRL.
Only Viliame Kikau (133m) and James Fisher-Harris (111m) finished with more than 100 run metres.
Kikau also produced his most disappointing game of the season on a night when nothing went right for the giant backrower.
The Panthers will need to find someone to replace Tamou and Jack Hetherington (Bulldogs).
The Panthers are already the bookies' favourites for next season and with that comes enormous expectation.
Yes, they won 17 straight but throughout the finals they were nowhere near their best, and their lack of experience was exposed.
The positive is that they've now tasted grand final defeat, and that pain will motivate them for next season.
But one factor that can be easily overlooked is that the Panthers also had a remarkably fortunate year when it came to injuries, or the lack of them.
On grand final night every one of their top 30 squad was fit for selection.
Can they be that lucky again?
Regardless, the young Panthers should be proud of their efforts throughout 2020 but it just wasn't to be.
Ivan Cleary will also lose his attacking coach Barrett, who takes over as Canterbury's head coach.
2021 NRL PREMIERSHIP MARKET
$6 Souths, Sydney Roosters
$19 Gold Coast
$21 North Queensland
$23 Cronulla, NZ Warriors
$29 Wests Tigers
$41 St George Illawarra
*Odds courtesy TAB
Originally published as Why Cleary must be dropped for Origin I