Penrith halfback Nathan Cleary faces an anxious 72-hour wait to learn whether his efforts in steering his team to a much needed victory over arch rivals Parramatta on Thursday night were enough for him to retain the NSW No.7 jersey.
His father and coach, Ivan, wasn't sure after the 16-10 defeat of Parramatta but those involved with the Blues team were impressed by Cleary's control and determination to help Panthers off the bottom of the Telstra Premiership ladder.
“He played well under pressure,” NSW adviser Greg Alexander said.
Cleary scored the only try of the second-half and guided his team around for the remaining 19 minutes of the match as they ended a six-game losing streak.
The 21-year-old went to Bankwest Stadium under pressure from South Sydney's Adam Reynolds and Newcastle's Mitchell Pearce for the Blues halfback position ahead of the NSW team announcement on Sunday night.
It remains to be seen whether he has done enough to convince NSW coach Brad Fittler to stick by him, but at this stage Cleary is believed to be favourite to partner Sydney Roosters five-eighth Luke Keary at the scrumbase in Origin I.
“Freddy will pick a team he thinks gives them the best chance of getting a win," Ivan Cleary said. "There are obviously some players in great form in those halves positions, probably in better form than Nathan but at the end of the day it will be up to Freddy to decide what he wants to do.
“I thought he did his job for his team tonight. I thought he looked like a guy in a team that was just hell bent on playing as a team and grinding out a win."
After being a member of last season's series winning NSW team and the most in-demand player in the NRL, Cleary has had to endure enormous pressure and scrutiny.
It began over his playing future and intensified after Ivan decided to seek a release from his contract with Wests Tigers to take charge of Penrith and coach his son.
“Oh man, it’s been like six months really," Ivan said of the pressure Nathan has faced. "It has been right from the time last year when we were talking about contracts and he was connected into pretty much everything that was connected with me so he has been under a lot of scrutiny and a lot of pressure, as has our whole club."
Former representative stars Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Josh Mansour responded to their recalls after a week in the Canterbury Cup with strong performances.
Campbell-Gillard carried the ball 135 metres, while Mansor ran 192 metres in possession. Fellow winger Brian To'o finished with a game high 212 running metres in just his second NRL appearance.
Penrith supporters would have been fearing they were in for another long and sorry night after five-eighth Jerome Luai knocked on in the play-the-ball after just their second tackle in possession at the start. Eels winger Maika Sivo swooped on a Will Smith grubber to score in the third minute.
However, Sivo's sixth try in five matches was the only time that Parramatta genuinely looked like scoring as errors and penalties continually disrupted the flow of the game.
Match: Eels v Panthers
Round 11 -
Venue: Bankwest Stadium
- Nine Network
- LIVE PASS
Penrith forward Frank Winterstein was placed on report for dangerous contact on Mitchell Moses after he had kicked the ball and Luai may also have a judiciary charge to answer after a coat-hanger style tackle on the Parramatta halfback.
Eels centre Blake Ferguson was also put in report for a trip on his Panthers opposite Waqa Blake.
Perhaps the nine first-half errors and 12 penalties was due to the conditions in the first night game at Bankwest Stadium, or maybe it was the poor form of the two teams.
With the Panthers not having won since their round 4 golden point defeat of Wests Tigers and the Eels having lost their last two matches, both teams showed a lack of confidence by opting to kick for goal whenever they received a penalty within range.
Former NSW Origin prop Tim Grant made up for a 15th minute error, when he dropped the ball five metres from the Parramatta try line, by barging over for Penrith's only first half try five minutes later.
Cleary then levelled the scores at 8-8 with a 28th minute penalty goal after Robert Jennings fumbled a Luai bomb and Peni Terepo conceded a play-the-ball penalty.
Moses regained the lead for Parramatta four minutes later but his penalty goal typified the game as the Eels playmaker slipped over as he struck the ball. Miraculously, it just cleared the cross-bar.
With the entertainment on the field not living up to expectations for Parramatta fans in the 16,228 crowd, the biggest cheer of the night came when a touch judge collided with Penrith trainer Craig Caterick as he was running on to treat To'o.
Ahead 10-8 at half-time, the Eels failed to score a point in the second half and finished the game with 14 errors to give themselves little chance as they completed 11 of 20 second half sets of possession.
Cleary again levelled the scores with a 48th-minute penalty goal and he finally put the Panthers ahead for the first time in the match when he dived to catch a kick from Luai that deflected off Ferguson's legs to score in the 61st minute.
The Eels centre, who is hoping for an Origin recall on the right wing, had an unhappy night and finished with three handling errors.