‘We let him down’: Fittler says Cleary criticism is out of line

The Blues began “Operation Nathan” in the minutes after full-time in Origin I as their chief playmaker is again having his credentials questioned after a rare sub-par display in Wednesday’s opener.

As Daly Cherry-Evans was dancing around Accor Stadium with his kids after Queensland’s stunning 16-10 upset, Nathan Cleary was entering a period of self-loathing, blaming himself for the loss.

Alone in a circle of plastic chairs, Cleary sat with his head in his hands. Blues assistant Paul McGregor sat down next to Cleary and began the rebuild. Their conversation could be easily heard and those who saw it say the message was about reminding Cleary that he was not alone; that he had 16 teammates who needed to share the loss, and there were 20 support staff in the group who were also with him.

When I spoke to Cleary, he was upset with himself for “missing the moments”. “I certainly could have played better,” he said. The impact of the loss was still fresh.

The Blues are surprised at the level of blame directed at Cleary – the premiership-winning half who guided NSW to last year’s series win is the man they have faith in. The Blues hierarchy are confident he will play more than 30 Origins.

Blues assistant coach Paul McGregor consoles Nathan Cleary after Origin I.

“He is our halfback and our vice-captain,” coach Brad Fittler said. “The attention that he gets still shocks me. I want to say we let him down on the night – not the other way around. We owe it to him to be better. But he has to feel this pain. All the great ones do. And it will only make him better in the next game and beyond that.”

Cleary was picked by Fittler as a 10-year Origin halfback. The long-term commitment has given the man himself huge confidence.

“It’s hard not to feel supported when you know you have a coach who will stick by you in good and bad times,” Cleary said.

Trell and back

Souths want it known they want Latrell Mitchell’s return to be with them and not the Blues. Mitchell has stripped about five kilograms as he shows his dedication to the club, and Souths have spent more than $50,000 on his hamstring rehabilitation in the US. They are of the view that his comeback should be with them.

“Wednesday’s game showed all the speed and intensity of Origin,” Rabbitohs CEO Blake Solly said. “Latrell’s recovery from injury has been first class, and we all know he is a phenomenal athlete. But like every club with a player returning from a relatively lengthy injury break and a bout of COVID, our preference would be for the player to return to the field via club football before selection in an Origin team.”

The NSW head trainer is Souths’ Travis Touma, so he will have a tough balancing act. The Rabbitohs say Mitchell is unlikely to play before round 16 against the Eels, six days after game two of the Origin series in Perth.

Wayne gets his man

Sam Burgess is expected to tell Souths chief Solly that he will be Wayne Bennett’s assistant at the Dolphins next year. That’s the way he’s been thinking all week.

Souths were willing to offer him a position, but his friendship with Bennett and the opportunity to develop under him as a coach is expected to sway his decision. Burgess will also place himself in a challenging professional environment where he is helping to create a new club. For a man who thrives on overcoming adversity, that has genuine appeal.

Board games

The NRL is overhauling many things, including the way it invites dignitaries to games. At an Origin event, you would think the family of the late, great Arthur Beetson would have received an invitation. Or the family of Johnny Raper, one of the original Immortals, who passed away on February 9. The NRL confirmed that neither of those great’s families were invited on Wednesday night and admit it was a significant oversight.

What appeared far more deliberate was the failure to invite members of the NSWRL board. Yet, former NSWRL chairman George Peponis was invited.

The NRL and NSWRL are at loggerheads after the sudden resignations of two of the game’s most respected figures, director Nick Politis and Peponis, in February following a boardroom stoush over a decision to block Cronulla chief executive Dino Mezzatesta from running for a position on the NSWRL board.

Stamping out abuse

There is a growing concern among players in the NRL about the torrid and very personal abuse they are coping from fans. A number of players have raised the issue with me, including incidents where fans have walked across a number of bays to hurl abuse at players.

The most public example is when Jackson Hastings called out a fan who was making troubling references about him and his family. The supporter was ejected. Players have told me similar tales.

Fans have the right to boo, as they did with Broncos star Payne Haas recently, but some of the abuse is way out of line. James Tamou, who is on the Rugby League Players Association’s player advisory group, said the situation was getting out of hand.

“I spoke back in 2020 about the racial abuse from a fan towards Brent Naden, and it can be frustrating to know that not much has changed,” Tamou said.

“You would hope that as we become more progressive and accepting as a society people realise that this kind of behaviour will not be tolerated. On security, I think it’s crazy to see the number of pitch invasions and, considering the issues this poses, we need to prioritise the safety and security of the players. This is a game where families and young children come to watch, it should be a safe space for all.”

Fake News

When it comes to the Channel Nine commentary team, it seems that Twitter trolls with 12 followers are the main point of reference for News Corp stories; not only do they quote the trolls, they reproduce their tweets in print or online.

Their latest target was Mat Thompson, who called his first Origin match on Wednesday night. This is from a company that has pretended to back campaigns against online bullying. They’ve employed former Nine presenter Erin Molan, who has led the campaign. If she read what was being “reported” about Thompson and the Nine coverage based on trolls, she would be horrified.

Thompson was stepping into the big shoes of Ray Warren, who retired after calling 99 Origins. When I caught up with him after Origin, Thompson was circumspect. “Obviously, it’s not an easy thing coming in after ‘Rabbits’ [Warren] and people are going to have a view and an opinion … but I’ve been so well supported. Rabs isn’t going to shove his opinion down my throat, but he is there for me if I need it and he has taught me light and shade. I’ve been listening to him my whole life, and the whole time I’ve been at Nine he’s been the voice of league.”

The viewing figures reported by News Corp for Origin I did not include streaming figures, which is like not including Kayo when measuring Fox Sports’ ratings. Their insistence on reporting declining linear TV (antenna) ratings blatantly ignores the viewing habits of the nation, where it is commonplace to watch free-to-air programming via the 9Now app built into smart TVs.

For the record, 9Now (owned by Nine Entertainment, which also owns this masthead) recorded an audience of 425,000 BVOD (broadcaster viewing on demand) for Origin I, with the national average audience 2.94million, comprising 1.77 million metro viewers and 741,000 regionally on linear TV, as well as the record streaming numbers.

Home to roost

The Roosters took another scary step – if you are a rival club – towards long-term dominance when they raised $1.1 million at the launch of their foundation on Thursday night.

The event was held at the league “stronghold” of Double Bay, and the money will be used to help with their academy and various other areas of their football business.

Young Roosters player Siua Wong, 19, left a positive impression on the room as he recalled his journey from New Zealand as a 14-year-old to board at The Scots College in Bellevue Hill, where he completed high school in 2021. He has since been housed in one of the units in the block purchased by the Roosters as a member of the club’s academy. He spoke of the systems the Roosters had in place to support him as he has come through the club’s junior grades.

Nine CEO Mike Sneesby takes photos of fans with Sonny Bill Williams.

Snappy business

Nine Entertainment CEO Mike Sneesby is clearly a man of the people. He had to be when he went to the George KambososDevin Haney fight in Melbourne last Sunday with Sonny Bill Williams and his advisor, Khoder Nasser. More often than not, Sneesby was approached by fans to take a photo of SBW with the punters, and he was happy to oblige.

Stream the NRL Premiership 2022 live and free on 9Now.

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