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Penrith recruitment guru Jim Jones still can't help but chuckle at those early Harold Matthews team sheets.

There on an extended bench, numbers 18-20, in scrawled handwriting, the dubbed reserve dummy-half.

N.Cleary.

In their formative years, as anyone in the Panthers system will tell you, Jarome Luai was the star No.7 coming through.

Cleary, the famous coach's kid who had lobbed from New Zealand, just couldn't get a look-in.

By the age of 17 though, Cleary was playing alongside Luai, who duly shuffled to the same No.6 he will don in his NSW debut on Wednesday night.

The Blues newest halves pairing have played together at various schoolboy and junior rep levels as far back as 2012, but from Cleary's rise to the No.7 jersey comes an eye-watering winning record and playmaking prowess that now enters the Origin arena.

NRL Stats reveal that since combining at SG Ball level in 2015, a Cleary-Luai scrumbase duo has won 80 per cent of the games they line up in.

Across the course of those 66 games – which only saw Luai catch up to Cleary on a regular NRL basis last year – the pair have been involved in 163 Penrith tries at SG Ball, under 20s and first grade level, either scoring themselves or setting up teammates.

"It's the weirdest progression when you think about it," Luai laughed this week.

"I remember watching Nath for the first time in a school game for St Doms, he'd just come over from NZ and the chat was 'this is some head coach's son'.

"I didn't know he was a Cleary though. And he just starts killing it, best player on the park.

"I'm watching it thinking 'I might be losing those rep spots, that was nice while it lasted'.

"You're right though, he started out coming off the bench at hooker.

"That didn't last long either. To be here after all those years, it's crazy."

In not too dissimilar scenes, NSW coach Brad Fittler still remembers the first time he laid eyes on a "skinny, flighty and chatty" Luai when he was coaching at under 18s and 16s level.

"Nothing's changed since," Fittler told NRL.com.

"I knew Nathan through Ivan so I was watching with a bit of interest when this other Penrith kid turned up, he made a bit of an impression."

What is your series prediction?

For all their dominance at junior level in crack Penrith under-age sides, the Cleary-Luai combination has truly come of age only in the past 18 months.

Playing in a winning side obviously helps. Since the start of 2020, Luai, Cleary and the rest of Penrith's powerhouse outfit boast 29 wins for just two losses.

Across that period, the playmakers have racked up a stunning haul of stats, including:

  • 63 try-assists (Luai 36, Cleary 27)
  • 52 line break assists (Luai 34, Cleary 18)
  • 19 tries (Cleary 12, Luai 7)
  • 22 line breaks (Cleary 13, Luai 9)

Translating that from their well-worn Penrith stomping ground to Queensland Country Bank Stadium is of course the great unknown.

Cleary especially has worn criticism leading into Origin I that he is still yet to truly dominate at the game's highest level, having lost last year's grand final and Origin series in the space of two months.

Remarkably, the 24-year-old told NRL.com earlier this week that an Origin partnership with Luai – however unlikely it must have seemed – came up in conversation as kids.

"It was a dream back then," Cleary said.

"We spoke about it and you watch Wednesday night's Origin with your mates but now to be doing it together, it's a dream come true and you have to pinch yourself that it's actually going to happen.

Jarome Luai's journey to a Blues jersey

"It's easier said than done but [Luai] just needs to be himself. I think that's something he does so well. He's never really been overawed by any occasion.

"Even last year was his first full year in first grade and he killed it. He brings that energy and that x-factor and it's something we're going to need from him on Wednesday."

Off the paddock introverted Cleary and loud and proud Luai present as rugby league's odd couple.

On it Blues advisor and Panthers great Greg Alexander sees Cleary and Luai cherry-picking from each other's strengths to bolster their own individual weaknesses, making for one hell of a well-rounded combination.

"I think they borrow a bit from each other over recent years," Alexander said.

"Jarome has always been great on his feet and been the dominant, more attacking player with real flare.

"But Nathan's developed an attacking game now with his running game and strength, he can break a tackle.

"And Jarome's developed a bit of Nathan to his game where he's controlling a game, kicking well and taking on the solid aspects of Nathan's game into his own.

New venue, same rivalry: Origin hostilities head north

"It's something that only really happens over time, there's no real substitute for it or way to fast-track it.

"They know each other's games so well, it can only help in Origin.

"That familiarity of where someone is and what they're going to do in a certain situation, it's certainly a help.

"Front foot, back foot you know how your partner is going to handle a situation."

 

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