Nathan Cleary in bombshell NRL development amid fresh NSW State of Origin selection twist

The Panthers halfback is reportedly targeting a round 17 return.

Bulldogs supremo Phil Gould says Nathan Cleary is set to be named for the Panthers following the team's round 16 bye in a huge boost to the defending premiers and potentially the Blues. The Panthers No.7 has been out since picking up a hamstring strain in Penrith's 16-10 win over the Bulldogs in round 10 and was reportedly set to miss the entirety of this year's State of Origin series.

But the star halfback could come into contention for Game III as he is reportedly set to be named in the Panthers side for round 17. Gould says Cleary is back training and would have been named in the Panthers team next week if they weren't on the bye. Cleary's recovery is well ahead of schedule, with the star playmaker originally understood to be targeting a round 19 return.

Nathan Cleary is set to be named for the Panthers following the team's round 16 bye in a huge boost to the Panthers and potentially the Blues. Image: Getty
Nathan Cleary is set to be named for the Panthers following the team's round 16 bye in a huge boost to the Panthers and potentially the Blues. Image: Getty

This would theoretically mean he has two opportunities - against the Cowboys and Broncos in rounds 17 and 18 - to impress Blues coach Michael Maguire before he names his Blues side for Game III in Queensland.

Last year, a hamstring injury ruled Cleary out of Origin II and III and Gould believes as long as he gets through his next two matches unscathed he will be picked for the potential Origin decider in Brisbane. "If he got one (match) under his belt before game three, you'd certainly be picking him," Gould said on Wide World of Sports' Six Tackles with Gus.

Eels halfback Mitchell Moses continues to firm as the likely Blues halfback for Game II after Nicho Hynes struggled in Game I and failed to set the world alight for the Sharks on Thursday night. And should Moses be picked for Game II and NSW level the series, Maguire would have an incredibly tough decision to make.

If NSW go 2-0 down in the series it is unlikely Cleary would be risked given his recent injury history. But if the series hangs in the balance, Andrew Johns believes Maguire would select Cleary and if it were up to him he would partner the Panthers star with Moses.

NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 31: General Manager of the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and channel nine commentator Phil Gould during the round 13 NRL match between Newcastle Knights and Canterbury Bulldogs at McDonald Jones Stadium, on May 31, 2024, in Newcastle, Australia. (Photo by Scott Gardiner/Getty Images)
Phil Gould claims Nathan Cleary is nearing an NRL return.

"I'd pick them both. And they'll work out how to play amongst themselves... They'd work it out amongst themselves, Moses and Cleary, who'd be the dominant player, who would play on board. Nathan would obviously do a lot of the kicking, but they would share it around. I'd like to see how they go together."

In that case, Cleary's NRL halves partner Jarome Luai would make way in the Blues side. But Johns says if it was up to him, he would drop Luai for Game II in favour of in-form Souths No.6 Cody Walker anyway and would pick Moses over Hynes. And if that halves pairing won the Blues the match in Game II, the Knights legend says he'd leave Cleary out even if he was fit.

"I wouldn't change them... Cody unlocks the left-hand side, and in game one there were a lot of balls that hit the ground when we were going to our left," Johns said. "One thing about Cody, when the ball goes away, Cody's not chasing the ball – he's organising his back row, he's organising his full-back, he's organising his centre, his winger. Game III last year, he lit up that left side.

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"If everyone was fit … I would have gone with Cleary and Cody. I would actually go Moses and Cody for Game II – they played together last year in Game III and they combine really well." The Blues team for Game II will be named on Sunday night, with the Maroons team announced the following morning.