Maloney-Cleary combination set for overdrive

James Maloney believes he and halves partner Nathan Cleary have just scratched the surface of the creativity they can conjure up in 2019 under his former Warriors coach.

The 32-year-old five-eighth, who played under Ivan Cleary at the Warriors in 2010 and 2011, insists the coach's return will be a catalyst for a vast improvement in the side's defensive performance.

While they played all three matches for NSW in the Holden State of Origin series win, Maloney and Cleary lined up in just 15 of the 26 games the Panthers contested in 2018.

Despite the success they enjoyed as a combination the most consecutive games they played together in club football, due to injuries, was four between rounds 19 and 22.

Both halves were influential in winning games for the Panthers with clutch plays when tight games were on the line.

"There is much more to come from us as a pairing, definitely," Maloney told NRL.com.

"We have a better understanding of each other’s games now than when we started and we'll look to build further on that, so it’s exciting.

"With a few injuries through Origin and post-Origin there was a whole period in the middle of the season where we had limited time together on the training paddock, and that was a bit disruptive.

“Nathan knows footy, plays direct and his style of play complements mine but the biggest thing we can still develop is our ad-lib play and that is all about understanding and reacting to each other.

"The structured stuff is easier to come by but it takes a little bit longer to starting picking up a guy’s habits and what they see and do at different times. Having 12 months under the belt we have a head-start on it, so hopefully we can continue that."

Maloney and Cleary will ramp up their understanding in the coming months as they return from surgeries.

"I got the neck operated on two weeks ago so I am back in moderate training and after Christmas I’ll be all guns blazing and ready to go," Maloney said.

"Nathan is coming back from a little clean-out on his ankle so he will be right back into it after Christmas as well."

The Panthers fielded the equal youngest squad in the NRL in 2018 with an average age of 24.8 and had the sixth best defensive record after conceding 461 points, one worse than Ivan Cleary's Wests Tigers.

In rounds 11 and 12 they conceded just four points in two games and soon afterwards 129 in four games between rounds 18 and 21.

Nathan and Ivan Cleary.
Nathan and Ivan Cleary. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

A major issue for the Panthers was their poor starts and Maloney said Ivan Cleary was the ideal coach to rectify that issue.

"I played two years under Ivan and really enjoyed it so I have no doubt he’ll be really good for the club," Maloney said.

"He brings a relaxed and calm temperament and was always defensive based as a coach, which I think is a real plus.

"As a side we know that our defence is one of the areas that we really need to be building because we’ve got plenty of points in us. If we can nail those consistent defensive performances it will put us in really good stead, and Ivan is the ideal coach to help us do that."

After the coaching upheavals which led to Anthony Griffin being sacked and Cameron Ciraldo taking over, Maloney said the other factor in coach Cleary's favour was the rapport he forged with key players such as Waqa Blake, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Isaah Yeo, Josh Mansour and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak when he was last at the club in 2015.

"I think the transition will all be pretty seamless," Maloney said.

"Ivan knows how to approach different players, he is quite easy to get on with and he knows football."