NSW place Origin faith in teenage dreamers

·3-min read

Brett Atkinson knew he had something pretty special when he first paired Jarome Luai and Nathan Cleary up in the under-16s at Penrith.

But special enough to one day run out as NSW's halves in a State of Origin series opener?

Not even Atkinson would have dared predict that.

"You sort of have an inkling on who you think might make it," Penrith's former Harold Matthews Cup coach told AAP.

"They are two guys who I thought might go on and play grade.

"Both of them had a lot of natural ability, it was just about learning the game.

"But ultimately there are a lot of years between Harold Matts or even SG Ball to playing first grade."

Much has changed for Luai and Cleary since those early days in 2013.

But the two teenagers Atkinson describes aren't that dissimilar to the pair who have won 46 of 48 games playing in the halves together since their under-20s days.

Luai was still the softly spoken young kid off the field who played with so much flair and enthusiasm on it.

Cleary was the new kid on the block after moving across from New Zealand, already a student of the game by growing up with an NRL coach as his father.

"Jarome was well known in the area as the kid with a lot of ability," Atkinson said.

"A lot of flair and potential there. Halfback was a key position and having Jarome there, there were high hopes he would play grade at Penrith.

"And then Nathan came along, he was a different personality.

"He had that same calmness back when he was 15 or 16. He was an astute learner of the game and took on board all the feedback."

Atkinson began the year with Cleary on the bench before moving him into the halves alongside Luai late in the regular season.

The Panthers finished fourth and were eventually beaten by a South Sydney side featuring now-Blues teammate Cameron Murray in the preliminary final.

But out of that spawned the nucleus of NSW's team for Game I in Townsville eight years later.

Liam Martin arrived at Penrith in under-18s from Temora, first as Luai's bodyguard before becoming a hole-runner for Cleary in the NRL.

Fellow Origin debutant Brian To'o rose through the Panthers' ranks as a powerful winger, now scoring tries for fun off Luai and averaging beyond 200 metres a game.

Isaah Yeo's presence at lock is then crucial as link man, with NSW officials making no secret of the fact they want to bring a Panthers style of play to the Blues.

In turn, they believe it can help unlock one of the state's most dangerous backlines in memory with Latrell Mitchell and Josh Addo-Carr on one edge and Tom Trbojevic with To'o on the other.

As for Atkinson, he plans to watch Wednesday's game with his neighbours knowing what he helped create.

"You feel a sense of pride," he said.

"Hopefully they can go on and get the job done and win."

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