Nathan Cleary still gets excited when he sees Andrew Johns’ name flash up on his phone.
Cleary grew up idolising Johns and the pair have formed a close relationship as he has grown from the shy 20-year-old debutant in 2018 to become NSW’s best halfback since the Immortal was coaxed out of representative retirement in 2005.
Johns, who made 23 appearances for the Blues from 1995, regularly phones Cleary to talk about his performances, and on the eve of this year’s series he has declared that the Panthers playmaker was ready to dominate Origin like he did two decades ago.
“The next four or five years - fingers crossed he stays injury free - you are going to see a different player,” Johns said. "You are going to see a player totally elevate himself in the game.”
The two-times premiership winning former Knights halfback has been a member of the NSW coaching staff during Cleary’s 13 games in the Blues No.7 jersey but he has been less involved with him in the lead up to Wednesday night’s series opener in Adelaide.
Cleary: "The feeling never gets old"
“I watched the game a couple of weeks ago when Penrith played Brisbane and he was in total control of his game and in total control of everyone’s game around him,” Johns said.
“He sped it up when he had to and slowed it down with his kicking game and control. It was just a masterclass.
“It’s all just building blocks with Nathan, he keeps ticking off the boxes every year as he goes on.”
Cleary splits them
Cleary said he took confidence from the praise heaped upon him by Johns, who is widely regarded as the greatest halfback in the game’s history.
“He was my idol and I think early on I was a bit star struck but now I have been able to work with him for a number of years and we’ve built that relationship,” Cleary said.
“I am able to talk to him on the phone every now and then throughout the season, and now to be able to be with him every day in Origin camp it is cool.
"I still get pretty excited when I see his name flash up on my phone. He will usually ring me and then we will just discuss what has been happening.
He will tell me what he has been seeing and anything he says I will always take on board.
“He has obviously got such a great football mind and he watches it from the [Channel 9] commentary box, so he has got the best view of everything. He sees a lot of things and I will always implement them.”
Origin Moments - Joey Johns
Since returning from the World Cup as Australia’s first choice halfback after unseating Queensland captain Daly Cherry-Evans for the No.7 jersey, Cleary’s game has gone to another level.
In a warning for the Maroons, Johns said the 25-year-old was only just entering his prime.
“The next challenge for Nathan – as everyone is talking about – is owning an Origin series. Fingers crossed this is the one,” Johns said.
“It was around the early 2000s where I thought I got to that level. I was 25 or 26, and Nathan is the same age.
It’s like a light bulb moment. My eyes just opened up.
“Once you’re on the field, you get little scenarios or moments where it’s a case of ‘this is what I’ve been working on, this is what this coach was telling me about’. That’s happening for Nathan now.
“He’s going to have moments out there in this series where the game slows down and he’ll have those light bulb moments."
Cleary sends us to golden point
By his own admission, Cleary was stand-offish when he first came into the Origin arena and allowed Panthers halves partner James Maloney to call the shots and he started last year's World Cup campaign in a similar manner.
However, he quickly grew into the dominant playmaker and is now comfortable with the responsibility of steering any team he plays for around.
"That’s the difference between the truly elite and the good club players, Nathan wants to get better,” Johns said.
“That’s why he trains so hard and watches video and wants to improve himself all the time. Who knows what the ceiling is? Who knows where he can get to?”