Nathan Cleary has never been this hungry despite winning everything

“I know deep down that I’m honestly only at the beginning and that I still have a long way to go. I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I’ve fully arrived [the summit]. There is always something you can be better at.

“I know I will never be perfect, but I can strive to be perfect.”

Nathan Cleary after pounding himself in a gym session before flying to the World Cup.

Nathan Cleary after pounding himself in a gym session before flying to the World Cup.Credit:Cole Bennetts/SMH

Cleary was born a few months earlier goodwill hunt appeared, the Hollywood blockbuster with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Damon’s character is a mathematical genius, but keeps passing on big job offers so he can work in construction and drink beers with his buddies.

There’s a fantastic scene where Affleck’s character tells his friend that he’s wasting his talents and that “you’ve got something none of us have”.

“Why is it always about how I owe it to myself to do this and that…what if I don’t want to?” Damon’s character says.

Affleck’s character replies, “You don’t owe it to yourself, you owe it to me. You’re sitting on a winning lottery ticket, but you’re too cowardly to cash it in.”

More of a documentary maker than a movie buff, Cleary knows he would take advantage of his family and friends if he didn’t see how far his talents can take him in the league.

“I feel like I have a lot to prove, not to other people, but to myself and the people around me and the people who believe in me,” Cleary said. “If I stopped now, I would let them down.

“If I wasn’t playing football, I actually don’t know what I would be doing.”

Cleary recalled watching a Tom Brady documentary last year and how the recently retired NFL megastar made a point of highlighting his teammates.

“He [Brady] always said how he wanted his teammates to improve and how his teammates improved him,” Cleary said.

“I can definitely understand that. If I wasn’t on this team with my teammates, I wouldn’t be the player I am. I also know that I get the chance to help the players around me and make them better.”

Panthers five-eighth Jarome Luai has known Cleary for more than a decade. He joked that Cleary loved the game so much he got to play in the NRL until he was 50.

“I hate to lose but he loves to win,” said Luai. “He wants to fulfill his potential, he knows he’s the man for our team and doesn’t want to let anyone down.”

The Panthers halfback put his body on the line during last year's grand final.

The Panthers halfback put his body on the line during last year’s grand final.Credit:Getty

Of all the success they had with Penrith last year, the standout Cleary memory for Luai is playing for Samoa against Australia in the World Cup final and then swapping shirts.

Cleary’s jersey hangs on the wall at home and is never washed.

“I try to wear it every night with hope [some of the magic] rubs off on me,” said Luai, laughing. “I play with one of the best players in the world every week and playing him that night reminded me of that.”

Once Cleary knocks, he doesn’t know when to back off. Few fans would have known he was ill ahead of the World Cup quarter-finals against Lebanon. Though the Kangaroos staff wanted him to take it easy, he’s pushed himself in the only way he can.

Cleary knows the loss of Api Koroisau and Viliame Kikau to the Panthers this season shouldn’t be underestimated. One of his tasks will be to inspire their successors like Mitch Kenny and Luke Garner to become better players as Penrith aims to become the first team since Parramatta in the early 1980s to win three straight titles.


This time last year, the question was whether Cleary’s dodgy shoulder would prevent him from playing in round one. This year, fans are more worried about Penrith winning three Premierships in a row.

“Why not,” says Cleary. “We are working as hard as we can to put ourselves in a position to do well. The majority of the group experienced losing a grand final [in 2020 to the Storm], and also won two. The latter is much more fun.”

Cleary this week released footage of him working with All Blacks legend Dan Carter. He says he’s “starstruck”. How many fans and young athletes will say the same thing about Cleary in the years to come?

Stream the NRL Premiership 2023 live for free 9Now.

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Ryan Sederquist

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