Crawley Files: Paul Crawley questions Nathan Cleary-Mitch Pearce State of Origin hypocrisy

The orchestrated outrage that Nathan Cleary was somehow unfairly treated following criticism over his Origin performance is just ridiculous. It’s all in Crawley Files.

Why Nathan Cleary is not a protected species and ‘King’ Cameron Munster is now the game’s No. 1 player, Paul Crawley dissects the major Origin talking points — while ranking the NRL’s top-10 players of 2022.

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There’s a new State of Origin king in town.
There’s a new State of Origin king in town.

CLEARY V ‘KING’ CAM – WHO WILL OWN ORIGIN II?

If it was Mitchell Pearce who delivered a similar performance to Nathan Cleary’s in Sydney, Pearce would have been crucified.

So let’s not kid ourselves and get all over protective. This orchestrated outrage that Cleary was somehow unfairly treated with the very guarded criticism he copped is just ridiculous. If anything, any talk about Cleary’s underwhelming performance has been more than justified given his experience and what we have come to expect.

While it certainly wasn’t all Cleary’s fault the Blues fell short, he was clearly rattled by Queensland’s pressure tactics, and couldn’t come up with a Plan B.

No one argues Cleary is not a tremendous player, and has been outstanding all season.

But The Daily Telegraph’s player ratings that gave Cleary a score of 3 out of 10 (equal lowest of any NSW player) was pretty consistent across the board.

In comparison, Cameron Munster rated an almost perfect 9.5.

That said, this is now a huge game in Cleary’s evolution.

There’s no question Queensland will go after him again, but mastering the art of playing off the back foot is a trait all the champion playmakers have in common.

It’s what helped make Wally Lewis, Peter Sterling, Allan Langer, Ricky Stuart, Joey Johns, Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston the legends they were.

At 24, Cleary still has a hell of a lot of development ahead.

But this showdown with Munster has the potential to be one of his more significant challenges so far.

A frustrated Nathan Cleary.
A frustrated Nathan Cleary.
Queensland targeted Cleary and his kicking in Game One.
Queensland targeted Cleary and his kicking in Game One.

WHY MUNSTER IS NOW GAME’S NO. 1

Going into Origin I, you could have made a case for either Cleary or Munster as the game’s best player in 2022.

Especially with the likes of Tom Trbojevic, Latrell Mitchell and Ryan Papenhuyzen missing so much football.

Yet it’s now Munster who has rightfully earned top billing with a dominant performance worthy of the ‘King’ Wally comparisons.

And this leads to another topic.

With a World Cup coming up at the end of the season, Origin II offers another chance for some previously unranked Kangaroo contenders to make another statement.

In many ways, it’s been a changing of the guard in 2022 when it comes to ranking the NRL’s new leading players (and not just Kangaroos).

Rating them not just on reputation but form this season, right now Munster is a clear standout ahead of Cleary and Isaah Yeo, then I’d go Kiwi Jahrome Hughes and James Tedesco still in my top five.

Remembering Trbojevic, Latrell and Papenhuyzen have been sidelined, Harry Grant, Nicho Hynes, Ben Hunt, Selwyn Cobbo and Reuben Cotter (in a points decision over rampaging Raider Joseph Tapine) round out my top 10 with special mention to Adam Reynolds, Mitchell Moses, Chad Townsend, Viliame Kikau, Pat Carrigan, Jason Taumalolo and Dylan Edwards.

It’s such a shame Cotter won’t be playing in Perth because of injury.

Cameron Munster has kicked clear as the game’s best player. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
Cameron Munster has kicked clear as the game’s best player. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

HOW BILLY PULLED DOWN FREDDY’S PANTS

NSW should stop blaming referee Ashley Klein about Queensland’s tactics and just own what went wrong.

The Blues also need to understand Cleary is not a protected species, and all the complaining should not get him preferential treatment in Perth.

The simple fact is Brad Fittler was out-coached.

Freddy sent the Blues smack bang into a Queensland ambush, but how did they not see it coming?

Especially given Billy Slater has never coached but learned his trade under Craig Bellamy at Melbourne. Shouldn’t the Blues have expected exactly the type of game plan Queensland delivered, with Cameron Smith also on Slater’s coaching staff?

Queensland beat the Blues with line speed, ruck control and momentum. On kick pressure and kick chase.

In all these areas attention to detail played a huge part, and that comes down to coaching.

No question Queensland’s tactics were also specifically designed to reduce the impact of Cleary’s kicking game. But by no means was it a case of the Maroons blatantly breaking the rules as some suggested. They just boxed clever.

Overall, Cleary had 20 kicks, but of those only three kick pressures potentially warranted a penalty (and at Origin level this is very debatable given the extra latitude that is always allowed).

It didn’t make it any easier on Cleary that he takes almost entirely all NSW’s kicks (with Jarome Luai only having 2 on the night), which made it easier for Queensland to target Cleary, while the Maroons share the kicking duties between Munster (9), Daly Cherry-Evans (13) and Hunt (2).

It will be interesting to see if the Blues try and make use of Burton’s giant boot in game two, although playing in the centres will make it difficult.

Further to that, Fittler complained about the speed of the ruck.

Yet overall, the opening Origin was still about 10 per cent quicker than an average club game, with about 70 more play the balls.

Breaking it down further, the average speed of an NRL play the ball is 3.58 secs, whereas in Origin NSW’s average was 3.43 secs and Queensland 3.21.

So while the Blues’ ruck speed was slightly slower that Queensland’s, it was marginal.

Admittedly, there were some tackles, often at critical times, where the Maroons got away with more than they should have.

We’ve all seen the vision by now of Munster laying all over a NSW player and innocently looking back at the ref to buy further time. We see Melbourne do it all the time.

But again, where’s the surprise – and is it cheating, or just smart play?

What the Blues need to do is devise their own plan to win the ruck and momentum, and get Cleary better protection. Which explains why Fittler has made the changes he has.

CAN QUEENSLAND STOP PENRITH?

Whether or not you agree with the mass changes Fittler has made after a six point defeat, the fact is he has done so to try and re-create what Penrith do at NRL level.

That’s probably why Bronco Kotoni Staggs (known for his X factor but not his strong carries out of the back-field) has been dumped for Panther Stephen Crichton, while a former Panther Matt Burton replaces Jack Wighton (who has Covid).

This is all designed to get the Blues on the front foot to start their sets. Api Koroisau also comes in as starting dummy half to get the forwards rolling.

With Cleary and halves partner Jarome Luai, Yeo, as well as Brian To’o and Liam Martin, that’s seven current Panthers and one former now in the starting team.

It is crystal clear what Fittler’s planning.

But how Slater adapts will be seen. The one thing we all know about Billy is that preparation and attention to detail was the foundation he built his illustrious career on.

HAS FREDDY COST COOK A ROO JERSEY?

There’s no way Damien Cook would put himself ahead of the team. But surely somewhere in the back of his mind he would have at least considered what being benched means to his World Cup hopes.

Despite being the Kangaroo incumbent, Cook would now drop to fourth on the dummy half pecking order given Grant is the standout, while Hunt adds utility value and is a Mal Meninga favourite, and Koroisau is now ahead of Cook.

Cook also turns 31 later this month and hasn’t exactly set the world on fire this year in a struggling South Sydney.

You can make the argument it wasn’t Fittler that cost him his starting spot anyway, it was his own form.

Nevertheless, it’s going to be incredibly hard to save his Kangaroo jumper unless he can have an absolute blinder off the bench, just like Grant did in game one.

WHERE DOES LATRELL FIT INTO FREDDY’S PLANS?

Fittler has shown his loyalty is to winning.

But with Staggs dumped to promote Crichton, while calling up Burton, the obvious next question is what happens if the Blues win in Perth and Latrell is fit for the decider?

In respect to Staggs, it was an extremely tough call given game one was his Origin debut and he was forced off injured.

But what must also be a concern going forward is while Staggs is only 23, will he even get another Blues call up given what’s happened here?

And now it’s Burton and Crichton who go out with a gun at their heads.

You can bet if this goes to a decider there’s every chance Latrell will be rushed straight back in providing he aims up in his return for Souths against the Eels next round.

PAUL CRAWLEY’S TOP 10 NRL PLAYERS IN 2022

CAMERON MUNSTER – Unbelievable performance in Sydney just confirms why Munster is now the game’s new ‘King’.

NATHAN CLEARY – Has had a cracking start to the season, but needs to fire back after an underwhelming Origin opener.

ISAAH YEO – Best ball playing forward bar none, and if he didn’t get knocked senseless in Sydney it might be Queensland now under the pump.

JAHROME HUGHES – For some time massively underrated, but not anymore. Delivers week after week for Melbourne, can’t wait to see him line up for the Kiwis.

JAMES TEDESCO – In an up-and-down Roosters side Teddy continues to maintain incredibly high standards.

HARRY GRANT – Came off the bench in Sydney and changed the game. Clearly the game’s best dummy half.

NICHO HYNES – Having a tremendous season guiding the Sharks into the top four in his first year playing full-time in the halves.

BEN HUNT – Was leading the Dally M Medal race when votes went behind closed doors. Always aim up in Origin.

SELWYN COBBO – Absolute excitement machine who consistently comes up with the big plays. And so courageous.

REUBEN COTTER – Still can’t believe the bargain buy Cowboy is on $220,000 this year. It’s such a shame injury has robbed him of a start in game two.

Originally published as Crawley Files: Paul Crawley questions Nathan Cleary-Mitch Pearce State of Origin hypocrisy

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