Nathan Cleary’s green and gold era has begun and all signs are pointing towards it lasting for some time.
The result of Australia’s match against Scotland was never really in doubt. The Bravehearts didn’t need a miracle to beat the Kangaroos, they needed an apocalypse to strike but only affect one side.
The 84-0 blitzing is the kind of game that happens in World Cups when the top meets the bottom. There’s no way to avoid them and the best the Scots could hope for in Coventry was to avoid a record loss — which they did, although not by much.
Only the poor old Russians, who copped a 110-4 loss in 2000, have ever had a worse time of it when taking on the green and gold.
There are a lot of games like that in Australia’s World Cup history, where there are so many tries they all kind of run together in the end.
Afterwards, even if there is a special try like Josh Addo-Carr’s final score, which came after a between-the-legs pass from Matt Burton, they can be hard to recall outside of being somebody’s first, last or only Test.
And after many years of waiting, this was Cleary’s first.
The Panthers man is in a strange position when it comes to representative football. He is an automatic selection for New South Wales and has been for the past five series and while he’s got three series wins and two man-of-the-match awards to his credit, it still feels like his ultimate Origin legacy is yet to be written.
He’s been the best halfback in the league for three full years now but due to Australia’s lengthy layoff, his Test debut has had to wait and wait and wait.
Cleary was strong in the easy victory, scoring a try, having a hand in plenty more and kicking 12 goals for a personal haul of 28 points. He played to all his strengths, as he so often does, as Australia piled on try after try.
With due respect, thrashing Scotland isn’t the kind of victory that gives a player a mortgage on an Australian jersey. If Daly Cherry-Evans, Cleary’s only real rival for the halfback spot, had been out there he would have been just as effective.
But regardless of who was playing, or who Mal Meninga chooses for the business end of the tournament – which won’t begin in earnest for Australia until the semi-finals – Cleary is the future.
Cherry-Evans has been a fine servant for the jersey, filling the awkward gap between the retirement of Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston and the present and nearly rising to the captaincy in the meantime, but he turns 34 in January and even if he plays forever (which he might) the age of Cleary is upon us.
As a footballer, Cleary still has plenty of critics despite the success he’s enjoyed over the past few seasons. Given he’s the high-profile halfback of the best team in the competition, the coach’s son and the Origin playmaker for a state that loves to eat it’s own young, that’s to be expected.
The hyperbole swings both ways. Sometimes the hype machine swings his way and there’s premature talk that he could end up better than Thurston or Andrew Johns and other times, mainly after Origin matches, it goes the other way and the knives come out.
But what can’t be disputed is Cleary is very good at what he’s good at. We see that nearly every week for Penrith. Cleary has a great understanding of his own strengths, which are his physicality, his ability to take the ball to the line and, most of all, his incredible kicking game.
Turning the screws on a tight Origin game and flipping a narrow loss into a close win, which is the sign of a true master of the halfback arts, is one of the only things he hasn’t done in his career.
There are only a few chances to do that a year and sometimes, if the games are blowouts, he doesn’t get an opportunity to do it at all.
Cleary’s green and gold career will be long and glittering, that much feels certain. He won’t get the chance to play in tight matches for Australia all that often but the rare occasions when he does will be the moments his true legacy is made and an opportunity to silence the final doubters.
But for the most part, expect more of the same and more of the excellence we have come to know from Cleary. Think about what he does for the Panthers week in and week out.
If their forwards get on top, which they almost always do, and their back five crank out the metres, which happens as sure as the sun rising, Cleary runs them around the park and kicks the opposition to death and there’s almost nothing anybody can do about it.
All halfbacks are better when their team is on top but no halfback is better at it than Cleary and no team anywhere in the whole wide world of rugby league is on top like Australia.
There might be harder fights to come but right now it feels like a match made in heaven, a pairing that will end in nothing but big wins, record points hauls and the twisting insanity of Cleary’s trademark floating bombs raining down forever.