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Andrew Johns forced to eat humble pie

Nathan Cleary had an absolute blinder on Wednesday night, shrugging off recent criticism to lead NSW to a series-levelling 34-10 win in Game 2 of the State of Origin series.NRL legend Andrew Johns was among those calling for Cleary to be dropped after the Blues’ shock 18-14 loss in Game 1, but the young gun…

Nathan Cleary had an absolute blinder on Wednesday night, shrugging off recent criticism to lead NSW to a series-levelling 34-10 win in Game 2 of the State of Origin series.

NRL legend Andrew Johns was among those calling for Cleary to be dropped after the Blues’ shock 18-14 loss in Game 1, but the young gun showed why he’s the best halfback in the state, having a hand in nearly everything as Brad Fittler’s troops destroyed the Maroons.

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Johns initially wanted five-eighth Luke Keary axed for Origin II before backflipping and calling for Cleary’s head.

“The more thought I give it, the more I’d like to see how Keary and Cody (Walker) would go,” Johns said. “He (Cleary) is young as a halfback at club level but in terms of Origin he’s a baby.

“This is the next development for Nathan as a halfback: create under pressure, under fatigue, with his team on the back foot.”

Some were concerned Cleary would be a liability this series because he was still dealing with the disappointment of Penrith losing to Melbourne in the grand final, where he also came under heavy fire for failing to deliver.

The 22-year-old said he hadn’t heard Johns’ critique leading up to Game 2 and didn’t need any outside noise to fire him up, but he played like a different man in Sydney.

“We definitely turned around what we labelled as what we were doing wrong (in Game 1) and Cody was on fire tonight,” Cleary told Nine at full-time.

“We just needed to finish the sets and I thought we did that a lot better tonight.”

On his exceptional kicking game, Cleary added: “We spoke about it during the week — we weren’t too happy where we were finishing our sets down in Adelaide. That’s what Origin football is all about, where you turn over the ball.

“We just wanted to work together and try to get to spots on the field where we thought we would get our best kicks off. I thought we did that pretty well tonight.”

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Cleary passed to Walker in the 17th minute as his halves partner zigged and zagged to cross for NSW’s first try, and he was last to touch the ball before captain James Tedesco stepped inside a huge hole to cross for another four-pointer.

The Panthers star showed more confidence in running the ball too, breaking the line early in the first half, while his kicking game was impeccable.

The maturity Cleary showed to kick deep on only the second tackle in the 33rd minute, turning Queensland around and forcing a line dropout was, as Johns and Maroons legend Billy Slater said in commentary for Nine, the epitome of an Origin play.

“That’s an Origin kick,” Slater said. “Nathan Cleary gets it on the second tackle and just pumps it into the corner. Gets the ultimate result but that’s an Origin kick.”

Johns added: “That’s a gutsy play. That is such a gutsy play. Been under a bit of pressure this week, Nathan Cleary, but standing up and coming up with some really big plays.”

Cleary also played a pivotal role in NSW drawing first blood in the second half. He pushed up in support when Damien Cook darted out of dummy-half, latching onto a pass and poking his head through the line.

His quick play-the-ball allowed the Blues to shift quickly to the left edge, where Jack Wighton punished a retreating Queensland defence by barging over from close range.

Another early kick into the corner from Cleary after 45 minutes saw Phillip Sami placed under enormous pressure and shovelled over the sideline.

“Once again, big, big play by Nathan Cleary,” said Johns, who praised NSW for presenting a completely different threat in attack compared to what it posed in Adelaide.

“I think they’re using the ball more,” Johns added. “Passing the ball, using a lot of width.

“When they’ve gone forward, they’ve actually used it. They’ve gone wide.”

Cleary was as effective at the end of the game as he was at the start. He made a half-break with 10 minutes to go before offloading to Tedesco, and nailed a beautiful 40/20 in the dying stages to make the Maroons’ misery even worse.

“That is an incredible play. His kicking game tonight has been top notch,” Johns said.

Cleary was also excellent with the boot from the kicking tee, landing some difficult conversions as he finished with a 10-point haul.

Former NSW coach and Nine commentator Phil Gould joined Johns in heaping plenty of praise on Cleary.

“I thought it (NSW’s win) was built on the back of Nathan Cleary’s kicking game tonight,” Gould said. “It was absolutely superb.

“You’ve heard me say a number of times the value of the early kick. Kick early, kick early, kick early. When you think you’ve kicked too much, kick it again.

“He certainly got them on the front foot a number of times tonight and not only produced good yardage in turning Queensland around, but it ended up producing points and was a very dominant display by the Blues.”

Parramatta legend Peter Sterling told Nine’s coverage it was “one of the best kicking displays I have seen from a halves pairing in Origin for as long as I can remember — especially the early kicks”.

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