Penrith Panthers‘ halfback Nathan Cleary is seeking the guidance of legendary New Zealand rugby union player Dan Carter as he prepares to face his childhood idol, Shaun Johnson of the New Zealand Warriors, in Saturday’s qualifying final. Cleary, who spent time in New Zealand while his father coached the Warriors, has maintained contact with Carter and received assistance from the former All Blacks star in improving his kicking technique and mental preparation throughout the season.
Cleary shared his admiration for Carter, referring to him as a “superhero” in his eyes and revealing his nerves when he first met him. However, Cleary cherished the opportunity to kick with Carter and learn from his experiences. The young halfback expressed his hope to catch up with Carter again in the future.
Under Carter’s guidance, Cleary has revamped his goal-kicking practice routine, implementing a structured program that involves setting specific targets for each day of training. This is a departure from his previous approach of kicking from various spots on the field until he was satisfied. Cleary emphasised the significance of mindset and mental preparation in kicking and playing the game as a whole. He acknowledged Carter’s emphasis on preparation and processes, values that Cleary also holds dearly.
The connection between Cleary and Johnson is deeply rooted in their shared love for the Warriors. With Cleary’s father, Ivan Cleary, having played for the Warriors and coached the team for several years, Nathan grew up idolising Johnson. After playing against him for the first time in 2016, Cleary asked for a photo with Johnson, and he has closely followed the revival of Johnson’s career this season.
As the Panthers face the Warriors in the qualifying final, Cleary expressed his admiration for Johnson’s growth as a player and his enjoyment in watching him perform. Cleary acknowledged the changes in Johnson’s game, noting the development in other areas despite a decrease in speed. He looks forward to the challenge of facing Johnson in such an important match.
While Cleary has a soft spot for the Warriors and admires their accomplishments this season, he remains focused on his team’s success. He highlighted the sacrifices made by the Warriors in their move to Australia and expressed his respect for the support they have received. However, Cleary made it clear that sentiment will have no impact on the game, hoping that the Warriors do not perform exceptionally well against his Panthers.
The winner of Saturday’s finals clash will progress to the preliminary final, while the loser will have another chance in the elimination play-off. Cleary expressed his desire to see the Warriors build on their successful season but emphasised the competitiveness of the upcoming match.
As the Panthers and the Warriors take the field on Saturday, Cleary will rely on the advice of Dan Carter and his own mental and physical preparation to give his team the best chance of victory. The mentorship and support he has received from Carter will undoubtedly play a role in Cleary’s performance, as he aims to make a lasting impact in the finals.