Brad Fittler has challenged embattled Penrith halfback Nathan Cleary to seize “his chance” against the Eels and rescue his Origin career before the NSW is picked for Game I.
Fittler dropped his biggest hint yet that Cleary is still very much in the frame to wear the No.7 jersey in Brisbane on June 5 despite a horror season in which Penrith have lost six straight and sit dead last on the ladder.
Cleary, reportedly the subject of a ‘secret pact’ between Fittler and rugby league godfather Phil Gould, has been pinpointed alongside stuttering veteran James Maloney as problem areas for the Blues.
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But Fittler denied Cleary was out of favour with the Blues; in fact the coach made it clear he’s a strong chance to be picked and he doesn’t want to “mess with the universe”.
“This is a big game for Penrith because Maloney isn’t playing. This is his chance,” Fittler told the Sydney Morning Herald.
“I haven’t run a line through anyone. I hate saying players’ names. I don’t like saying their name in a position outside of the meetings with Brandy and Bedsy.
“I feel like it puts unnecessary pressure on everyone. I’m a believer in the universe. That puts pressure on the universe. I don’t want to mess with the universe.”
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A heavy criticism of the potential Cleary selection is that Fittler picked last year’s series-winning side on form. Cleary and Maloney are in anything but form.
And waiting in the wings are a number of capable players putting their clubs in early premiership contention: Souths pair Adam Reynolds and Cody Walker, and Roosters star Luke Keary.
But Fittler says while Cleary is playing badly, he’s by no means a bad halfback.
“He does a lot of those effort areas that I think are desperately important in big games like State of Origin,” Fittler said.
“While everything is awful out there at Penrith, and it’s not a lay down misere he’s going to play for NSW, he’s doing most of the things I look for in players.”
Universe or not, 80 minutes may stand between Cleary and an Origin lifeline. Those 80 minutes at Bankwest on Thursday night could be the most important so far of his nascent career.
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