Andrew Johns eats his words after State of Origin call backfires

Andrew Reid
·4-min read
Seen here, Andrew Johns' criticism of Nathan Cleary backfired in Game II.
Andrew Johns was among those calling for Nathan Cleary to be dropped before his man-of-the-match display in Game II. Pic: AAP

Nathan Cleary's inclusion for NSW was the source of fierce debate before State of Origin II in Sydney on Wednesday night.

Following his man-of-the-the-match display in the 34-10 win, the 22-year-old forced critics to eat their words.

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Among the most vocal of those was league Immortal and Blues legend Andrew Johns, who claimed Cleary should have been dropped after a lacklustre showing in the Game I defeat.

It followed one of the Cleary's poorest matches coming in Penrith's heartbreaking grand final defeat to the Melbourne Storm.

Johns initially thought Luke Keary deserved to be dropped for Game II before stating that Cleary was the man coach Brad Fittler should have offloaded.

“The more thought I give it, the more I’d like to see how Keary and Cody (Walker) would go,” Johns said.

“He (Cleary) is young as a halfback at club level but in terms of Origin he’s a baby.

“This is the next development for Nathan as a halfback: create under pressure, under fatigue, with his team on the back foot.”

Any thoughts that Cleary's grand final disappointment might adversely affect his influence in the Origin series were emphatically answered in Game II.

Cleary was superb in the 24-point flogging of Queensland, regularly kicking early and deep while utilising the speed of winger Josh Addo-Carr.

He finished with two forced dropouts and a 40-20, as the Penrith half was happy to kick early in the count to turn Queensland around.

It paid off, with a ridiculous 77 per cent of the ball being played in Queensland's half, while the Blues also enjoyed 65 per cent of possession.

“We definitely turned around what we labelled as what we were doing wrong (in Game 1) and Cody was on fire tonight,” Cleary told Nine at full-time.

“We just needed to finish the sets and I thought we did that a lot better tonight.”

Cleary kicking game hailed by league legends

Johns was quick to admit that he'd been wrong about Cleary, labelling his kicking game the best he's ever seen by a NSW Origin halfback.

"Under pressure this week, would have felt the pressure, but stood up and answered all his critics," Johns told Nine.

"I thought his kicking game was the best I've seen from a NSW half in all my time watching footy.

"The early kicks, the courage to kick early and back himself and not only once or twice, but three or four times, he did it.

"He just stood up and he made a lot of people eat their words and really proud of the way he played tonight."

Cleary said the Blues' kicking tactics were all part of coach Brad Fittler's plan around field position.

Pictured here, Nathan Cleary and Cody Walker embrace after NSW's Origin II win.
Nathan Cleary and Cody Walker were outstanding for the Blues in Game II. Pic: Getty

“We spoke about it during the week — we weren’t too happy where we were finishing our sets down in Adelaide. That’s what Origin football is all about, where you turn over the ball.

“We just wanted to work together and try to get to spots on the field where we thought we would get our best kicks off. I thought we did that pretty well tonight.”

Nine commentator and former NSW coach Phil Gould said the Blues' win was "built on the back of Nathan Cleary’s kicking game".

“You’ve heard me say a number of times the value of the early kick. Kick early, kick early, kick early. When you think you’ve kicked too much, kick it again," Gould said.

“He certainly got them on the front foot a number of times tonight and not only produced good yardage in turning Queensland around, but it ended up producing points and was a very dominant display by the Blues.”

Fellow Nine commentator and NSW legend Pater Sterling agreed by describing it as "one of the best kicking displays I have seen from a halves pairing in Origin for as long as I can remember — especially the early kicks".

with AAP

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