OVER the decades it has been the great individual clashes, as much as the traditional Queensland-NSW rivalry, that has made State of Origin Australia’s most captivating sporting theatre.
Wally Lewis versus Brett Kenny. Alfie Langer against Ricky Stuart. Cameron Smith and Danny Buderus. Ben Elias and Steve Walters. Brad Fittler and Darren Lockyer. Adam MacDougall and Wendell Sailor. Gorden Tallis and Ben Kennedy. And so on, and so on.
The next chapter is set to feature two young men capable of taking the concept to a whole new level, even though, at this point, they boast just one Origin appearance between them.
Nathan Cleary’s debut in NSW’s 22-12 triumph against Queensland on Wednesday night was far from spectacular.
He was solid without dominating, and his playmaking partner James Maloney was responsible for most of the big plays.
But it’s fair to assume that Cleary, still five months shy of his 21st birthday, will only get better.
Indeed I’d go as far as saying the Penrith No.7 is a better player than Andrew Johns was at the same age.
If that sounds like heresy, just consider the following statistics.
Cleary has played in 46 NRL games. Johns had appeared in 33 at the same age.
Cleary has contested four play-offs. At the corresponding point in his career, Johns had appeared in none.
Cleary emerged a winner from his first Origin encounter. Johns was so underwhelming in his first two Origins, as a 21-year-old, that he was dropped for the series decider.
Whether Cleary can emulate “Joey” and become one of the all-time greats remains to be seen. But if he can maintain his current trajectory, anything would appear possible.
If that prospect is enough to cause sleepless nights for those north of the Tweed, they can rest assured their own superstar is emerging, capable of creating a similar impact at Origin level.
Kalyn Ponga’s debut for Queensland is a case of when, not if.
It could potentially happen this year, depending on the fitness of Billy Slater and whether the Maroons can keep the series alive in Origin II.
Otherwise, the 20-year-old Knight will inevitably be wearing the No.1 jersey in 2019, and quite possibly for the next decade after that.
That might seem like a big call, given Ponga has played in only 22 first-grade games. But who is arguing?
Cleary and Ponga might not play the same positions or clash head-on, but there is little doubt they will become the go-to men, around whom their respective states build their teams for the next decade or more.
It’s not hard to envisage that within five years, both will be captains at club and interstate level – and one of them will also be skipper of the national team.
What has impressed as much as their outstanding talent is the remarkable maturity both have shown as they go about their business.
Some rookies are overawed once they are promoted to the NRL. Others rapidly gain egos and find themselves constantly in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
These two, at face value, shape as long-term role models and ambassadors for their code – humble, professional and highly motivated to become the best players they can be.
Touch wood, here’s hoping that both can avoid injury and realise their potential.
If so, they are capable of ensuring that Origin remains the greatest show on turf for many years to come.
TIME FOR KNIGHTS TO STAND TALL
THEIR win against Parramatta was a step in the right direction, but the Knights need to stand their ground against the Roosters on Saturday.
The Eels, of course, now appear certain to finish last. The Roosters are starting to resemble title contenders.
Like Cronulla, the Roosters have dominated Newcastle in recent seasons, winning their past five clashes, and nine of their past 10. Statistics like that tend to create psychological barriers that are not easily overcome. Make no mistake, a win on Saturday would be the most coveted scalp the Knights have collected under Nathan Brown’s coaching.
A-LEAGUE’S EXPANSION A GAMBLE
I CAN’T help thinking that less is more every time I read about the A-League’s expansion plans.
It’s not as if there are any standout candidates for when the competition increases from 10 to 12 teams in 2019-20. Crowds were generally on the slide this year (except in Newcastle), and it’s hard to see how adding a new team in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane will do anything except cannibalise the support base of existing teams.
Already clubs like Wellington and Central Coast are struggling to compete.
Which franchise will be next to join North Queensland Fury and Gold Coast United in the graveyard?