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Maloney reunited with ballboy Cleary

Michael Chammas, NRL.com

Photo by Jeff Lambert (Penrith Panthers)
Photo by Jeff Lambert (Penrith Panthers)

This was a match made in Auckland. The James Maloney-Nathan Cleary relationship, which Penrith hope will help the club realise its potential in 2018, began blossoming long before the pair knew they would be teammates. Six years before, to be exact.

"It's pretty crazy actually," Maloney told NRL.com.

"I remember when he was our ball boy when I was playing under his old man [Ivan Cleary] at the Warriors. It's funny how things work out."

Penrith's acquisition of Maloney on a three-year deal as part of a player swap for Matt Moylan with Cronulla isn't just based on what the Australian five-eighth can do for the Panthers.

It's also about what the veteran can do for the teenager he will play alongside in the halves next year.

The Panthers have felt for some time that Cleary needed an experienced hand by his side as he continues his impressive emergence in the NRL, hence the decision to part ways with Te Maire Martin.

Granted, there was once a time Cleary's responsibilities involved passing over a kicking tee or ball to Maloney, but the two-time premiership winner insists the Panthers will still be Cleary's team to run despite his arrival.

"Nathan is building to be an absolute superstar of the game," Maloney said.

"I'm not going there to take over. He controls the team and he does that well. I'll play around him and hopefully help him along the way. For me, that's a really exciting opportunity.

"He's been amazing what he's delivered so far in first grade at such a young age. He plays so composed. I'm looking forward to having the chance to add something and maybe help him along the way and work in and around him."

The 31-year-old has also revealed the details of a conversation he had with Moylan more than a month ago, contacting the former Penrith No.1 to make sure he had his blessing to pursue an opportunity with the Panthers.

Moylan and Maloney share a close bond after forging a relationship as the victorious NSW halves in game three of the 2016 State of Origin series.

That is why Maloney called Moylan when the swap was first raised to ensure he wouldn't be unwillingly forcing his friend out of Penrith.

"I called Matty a while ago when it was first floated the idea of it being a possibility," Maloney said.

"He didn't know too much about what was going on and to be fair I didn't really know either. I didn't know his situation so I didn't want to go there if he wanted to be there and force him out. He was the same with me. He said at the time he was coming to Cronulla to play with me there.

"But this is how things have worked out. Both clubs are obviously happy with the decision. Personally, for me, it gives me another three years of security with the family and financially I'm better off. And I'm really happy with the side I'm going to."

Penrith will be Maloney's sixth club, after having previously enjoyed time at Parramatta, Melbourne, New Zealand Warriors, Sydney Roosters and Cronulla.

He believes there are similarities between the Penrith side he will join next year and the Cronulla team he joined and led to a premiership in 2016.

"It reminds me of the reasons of why I went to Cronulla when I left the Roosters," Maloney said of the Panthers.

"I'm excited about the opportunity. I definitely think they have a really exciting roster and a really strong forward pack to play behind. There's a fair bit of experience now in the forwards.

"Jimmy Tamou, Peter Wallace, Trent Merrin – then there's a guy like Reagan Campbell-Gillard coming off the back of an Aussie tour and a massive year. That's exciting to play behind. They have some really exciting backs out there that can do some pretty special things."

Maloney, who will join Penrith on a three-year deal, still had one more year to run on his contract with the Sharks.

He had been agitating since the start of the season for an upgrade in his contract to match his status as a NSW and Australian representative.

Maloney admits his original desire was to remain at the Sharks with an increased offer, but the club had different plans.

The Australian five-eighth insists he has no bad blood with the club and understands their decision to pursue Moylan.

"Originally my first intention was to try and stay, and upgrade and extend," Maloney said.

"They didn't know what they wanted to do in terms of extending me at that point. I was fine with that. The way it played out, the club thought it was a good deal for them to get Matty over and Penrith are happy that I'm going there.

"I never left any hard feelings. I had success there. I wish them all the best. I loved my time there. We had a pretty special year in 2016 that I'll forever stay in contact with the boys."

The Panthers will next year be blessed with two of the sharpest shooters in the business. However, Maloney is more than happy to give up his usual goal-kicking duties to allow Cleary to continue doing so.

"I would say Nathan will do the kicking," Maloney said.

"It's not something I'm overly worried about. I'm not coming in saying 'mate I have to be the goal kicker'. As long as someone's kicking them at a high percentage, I suppose. I have no issue with it. He kicked the best of anyone this season."

Maloney's laid-back approach to the game and his larrikin character has left some with doubts over how he will work with Penrith coach Anthony Griffin given his reputation as a strict disciplinarian.

But Maloney has no such fears.

"I think I've only met him once. I ran into him at the races one time," he said.

"I have no doubt we'll be fine. I get along with most people. I have no doubt he's obviously an accomplished coach and had success the places he has gone. I'm looking forward to working with him."

This article first appeared on NRL.com

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